After reading OPEN Forum for a while, it's pretty clear that many small business gurus have social networking on the brain. It's Twitter this and YouTube that.
Yet, when I walk down Main Street, I don't see YouTube videos or Twitter names. I see people trying to make ends meet, whose hours are already chock full to the brim and who don't see how such online promotions can help them.
While sitting in the lobby of a local auto repair shop recently, I couldn't help but wonder to myself, "What could this business possibly get out of Twitter or YouTube or Facebook?" Most of their clientele is outside the tech-savvy demographic. What good can they possibly get out of using these technologies?
If you want to actually make social networking cost effective for your small brick-and-mortar business, here are several ways to do it.
First of all, don't duplicate effort. Many businesspeople feel like they need to be on several platforms at once - and that takes a lot of time. Instead, I recommend signing up for a few services - like, for example, Twitter and Facebook - and then centralizing most of your participation. For example, you can post things on Twitter and have them automatically appear on Facebook by logging onto Facebook and setting up the Twitter application there.
Second, make it really easy for people to find you. Put your Twitter or your Facebook ID out there so people can find it. Put it in your ads and on your business cards.
Third, participate in the conversations that you find. Once a day or so, visit these sites and see whether or not any conversations are going on that are related to you - and participate in them. Offer what you know - and be honest about it.
Fourth, offer up deals. Go on Twitter and offer up a coupon code for your business. If they come in and say they're using the "March Twitter coupon," they'll get $5 off their total bill or maybe get a voucher for a free oil change or something like that. If you have things set up right, you don't have to duplicate effort - just post it in one place and it'll propogate out everywhere.
Finally, keep in mind why you're doing this. For a small businessperson, the reason to get involved is to retain existing customers and perhaps draw in new ones. The best way to do that is to be human and to be responsive. Answer questions and be lighthearted, but don't obsess.
Social media does not have to be a big time drain at all. Instead, it can be a very inexpensive and very simple way to retain customers and perhaps find a few new ones with little effort and almost no cost at all. You don't need an extensive online media plan or a high-priced consultant - just go sign up for an account or two, keep it simple, tell your customers about it, and share what you can. That's really what it's all about - it just takes a few minutes and can help you retain customers and find new ones for virtually no cost at all.