As the numbers behind social media go up and up (social media advertising is expected to reach upwards of $14 billion by 2018, according to Business Insider), confidence in its value has gone down. Only 2 percent of large brands' Facebook fans see their posts, meaning you pretty much have to pay for Facebook ads to reach existing and prospective customers. And a 2014 Gallup poll found that social media doesn't necessarily get customers to buy—apparently only 5 percent of those surveyed said social media had a "great deal of influence" on their purchasing decisions.
Those stats imply that social media may be more expensive and time consuming than it's actually worth. But is that really the case? Jamyla Bennu, co-founder of natural hair and body product line Oyin Handmade; Amy Bouchard, the founder of whoopie pie purveyor Wicked Whoopies; and marketing consultant Brian Honigman spoke with OPEN Forum about social media's effectiveness, the tricks they use to stand out in crowded news feeds, and the one piece of advice they think every small-business owner should know about social.
Is social media a good use of small-business owners times?
Amy Bouchard: I'm not a big social media person. There are probably 100 other things out there I don't even know about. [But] Facebook is pretty safe for me, and it's worked for us. We have Wicked Whoopie Wednesday, [when] we give away free whoopie pies to random winners. We have to put a little time into it, but people try it, then they talk about it. Then there's that trust when people see [other] people like it. It creates this excitement and buzz, and we don't have to pay for it.
Brian Honigman: Social media is a really effective approach in the long term. It's not just something that you start and [expect] to get a lot of traction. The problem with most businesses in trying to be successful in social media is they don't know their audience, and that's really important—you have to understand who you're talking to and why you're talking to them. That will help inform what you're actually saying and where you're saying it. Use social media as a tool to help you reach your goals as a business.
Jamyla Bennu: It's definitely worth investing the time; it's about building relationships with our customers. Transparency is a very important goal for us, and we like to connect with our customers. I think a lot of small-business owners feel that way—a connection to a customer is something they can offer emotionally, which maybe a larger business could not, and social media is a wonderful tool in which to do that.
Why do you think social media advertising is an effective way to reach an audience?
Honigman: Because you can really target the right message to the right people in a way that wasn't previously available. For example, Facebook allows you to access this massive audience and then scale down to exactly your niche and put money behind that.
How do you measure if social media efforts are actually working?
Bouchard: We're able to track our orders and see where the spikes are. Of course, it's harder during holidays, but we're very careful—going back to what Brian said—with where we're spending our money and making sure that we're reaching the right audience.
Honigman: The best way to measure your success is to understand what your goals are. I would never suggest throwing money into social media if you don't have a strong strategy in place. Something I often do as a consultant is make sure that a business—before jumping into any marketing channel—has a plan of action. So for the $100 you allocated to social media advertising this month, what did you get in return? Was it more visibility for your business? Did you retain your current customers? Were you able to drive more engagement? Were you able to drive additional traffic to your website or a particular landing page? It's all about understanding what your goals are first, then measuring against those benchmarks you set from the very beginning to understand if it's actually worth it.
Bennu: We get deep into our analytics and focus on trends. Over time, as we've put more emphasis into social media that's mobile friendly, such as Instagram and Twitter, we've noticed a long-term surge in our mobile ordering. That's interesting also in being able to reach consumers who are accessing the Internet in different ways—becoming a part of their social experience even when they're not in front of a computer.
What have you done to make a social media ad or post worth clicking on?
Bouchard: For me, it's the images. The wording is important, but when you see something yummy or delicious, it just grabs you. But we have to play with it all the time. There's so much competition out there.
Bennu: We find the same thing: Images matter. People are visual creatures—tap into the motivator of your customer. Visuals of food is an industry all its own, so I can imagine that the pictures of the delicious Whoopie Pies must be really tapping into a goal for your customers. We make hair- and body-care products, and when we post hair pictures or tutorials that include photos of people with awesome hair, we see an uptick in engagement or response. But it's not just any type of person; it has to be aspirational or connecting to what that person is looking for when they look for our products.
Honigman: Yeah, it's a lot of testing to see what will actually resonate with your customer base or potential customers. Facebook ads especially allow for some A/B testing where you can swap out different copy, different images, different titles on your ads to make sure you're serving the most effective ads to your audience. It's the right image that really reflects what you're offering, [or] having engaging copy that provides the proper context, as well as a strong call to action. You don't just want to say, "Hey, we make whoopie pies!" You want to say, "Our whoopie pies are delicious. Order today!" You don't want it to be a hard sell, but you want to drive action.
So what I'm hearing is that this all takes a lot of time, which we know small-business owners don't have a lot of. How do you fit social media advertising into your workflow?
Bennu: There are a number of staff members here who are authorized to participate in our social media, so that has been a huge help. It used to be [that] I was doing the social media whenever I had time. Once we began having staff members participate in it as well, it became something that had to be not only well-organized, but more highly trained. I had to really think about what I was doing, and then systematize it so it could be shared. We developed what kind of experience we wanted our customers to have with us online; our keywords happen to be education, inspiration and affirmation. Those are the things we want them to experience through our social media channels.
I have found setting those things up and also setting up a rough schedule based on our metrics and analytics [are helpful]. We get great response in the morning and in the middle of the evening, so we kind of split the day—I have an employee do the morning shift, then I'll do the evening shift, and sometimes we'll preschedule some things for the week. So it's definitely something that requires time and the investment of time, but we've found that it's worth it.
Honigman: According to a Constant Contact survey of small-business owners, about 20 hours a week on average is allocated to marketing. I would say that varies across the board; it just depends on your unique situation as a business owner. I've found that when it comes to social media, the one-man shop marketing consultant myself, using all the different tools out there helps to streamline some of the more repetitive processes, and lets you focus more on the strategy of how you're approaching social media as opposed to the very repetitive aspects of creating content, posting it on the right channels and optimizing for that channel. When I have those tools, like Hootsuite, Sprout Social, Buffer, I'm able to spend that [marketing time] solely focused on making sure that part of my social strategy is in place for the coming week.
Bouchard: Like you mentioned, Brian, I probably spend 20 hours a week on marketing. As the founder of the company, it's my responsibility to look and make sure there are no weirdos out there saying weird stuff [about the company]. Other than that, I do pay a marketing company to give us a heads up about what we should be doing. I used to do that years ago, but I just don't have time to do it. And as the company grows, I'm not even the one who would be good at it. [Letting] somebody else do it as you grow is the responsible thing to do to get to the next level.
How did you figure out how much money you wanted to spend on your social media marketing efforts?
Bouchard: For many years, we didn't have any extra money, and it was basically sending whoopie pies to different TV shows and magazines, and doing everything possible that was free in order to create a buzz. It only takes one person to like it. And if that one special person likes it, they put it on their Facebook page and you start to get that amazing media buzz, and trust, and it doesn't cost you anything except for your product.
Bennu: One of the major benefits of social media is that it's free. I don't think we even paid for advertising for the first 10 years that we existed. It was all word of mouth; we were very much into providing an amazing experience, providing a [great] product, then letting our customers talk amongst themselves. There's kind of an emotional hurdle we had to overcome to pay at all for social media (laughs). It felt like, "We shouldn't have to pay for Facebook ads! This is supposed to be people sharing their experience with each other. I don't want to pay to insert my message into their world." We very rarely do it.
Honigman: I don't think there's a silver bullet for the right budget to succeed on social media. It's very different for every business. It's again understanding what you're trying to accomplish. [Don't] say, "We're definitely allocating $100 a month to advertising on social media." You want to start really small with the budget and grow [it] as you begin to test to see what works and what doesn't.
What's one thing you've learned through your social media efforts that you think every small-business owner should know?
Bennu: Determine your voice and stick to it. Social media is interactive by nature, so you're going to be interacting with all kinds of folks. But it's important to realize that it is official communication, and you don't want to get sidetracked from your own messaging. Protect your online voice, because it is an asset.
Honigman: I couldn't agree more. In my experience, I've seen results from really paying attention to the details, which I think many using social media neglect just because they think, "Oh, it's just one Pin on Pinterest or one blog on Tumblr." But all these details—what image you're using, the language you're choosing on your post, how frequently you're posting—all that effort compounds in the long term and establishes how others perceive you online. It's important to understand what messaging you're putting out there, who you're trying to reach, and the unique nuances of each particular channel that you're planning on being active on.
Bouchard: Being 100 percent committed and totally interacting with the customer. I hate saying "Facebook fan"; I always say "my friends"—I'm so appreciative of them. People get ready on Tuesday night for Wicked Whoopies Wednesday. I literally will set my clock, get up at 12:30 in the morning, and do my post. I did it Christmas Eve; I did it New Year's Eve. I feel like if for some reason I ever missed a Wednesday, I would be letting so many people down. Interacting and making sure the whole thing is all about having fun is really important.
Photo: Getty Images