Using Social Media to Drive Business Advantage:
Why SMEs are Leading the Conversation


Featuring industry experts


Dave Sumner Smith
Programme Director,
B2 Business Hub


Richard Alvin
Managing Director,
Capital Business Media


Hannah McNamara
Managing director of HRM Coaching,
Ltd and a director of SME Academy


Follow the social selling thought leaders

The ongoing march of social networking shows no sign of abating. Facebook now has more than 750 million active users, 50 per cent of which log on to the site on any given day. The phenomenon, which started in the consumer environment, is now rapidly gathering momentum in the business world.

A recent survey from Regus, the global provider of workplace solutions, revealed that, “43 per cent of US businesses are successfully using social networking to win new customers, up 8 per cent from the corresponding figure in last year’s survey.” Other report highlights include the fact that “an estimated 50 per cent of US businesses use websites such as Twitter to engage, connect with and inform existing customers.”

The report finds that “social networking has fully evolved from a nice to have to a necessity as the majority of businesses in the US (69 per cent) and internationally (74 per cent) agree that social media activity is playing a bigger role in their marketing strategy.”

SMEs in the US are now among the most enthusiastic adopters of social media technologies, with growth rates also accelerating. MerchantCircle’s Merchant Confidence Index for the first quarter of 2011 found that more than 70 per cent of small businesses in the US are now promoting themselves on Facebook.

SMEs in the UK are now catching up fast. According to recent research carried out by salesforce. com, 47 per cent of SMEs are already using social networks and social media to interact with   prospects and customers. There is a growing perception that it’s rapidly becoming critical for businesses to engage or face being left behind.

Also, the “ignore it and it will go away” culture is disappearing within the SME UK community, with just 15 per cent of small businesses banning all social networks and 37 per cent saying they have no restrictions in place whatsoever.

1. A New Sales Channel for SMEs…
but Be Human, Don’t Just Speak, Listen Too!

Most SMEs realize that social media represents a great opportunity for them to reach out to customers and prospects; to share the passion that they have for their business, build their online reputation and engage with others. At the same time, they need to ensure that they avoid the ‘full-on’ sales pitch; often the fastest way to become ‘unfriended’!

Some SMEs make the mistake of repeating the same sales message over and over again to the same audience. The result is these individuals and businesses become very predictable and effectively alienate their audience.

There also needs to be sensitivity as to what messages need to remain offline. “Businesses should not have their entire conversation in the public domain,” says Dave Sumner Smith, programme director of the B2 Business Hub. “If a specific sales opportunity is developing, then the business should move it into a one-to-one conversation via email, phone or face-to-face. That said, there needs to be some level of flexibility. Generally speaking, while some guidelines must be set, SMEs should encourage their staff to respond to customer issues via social media tools where appropriate.”

If responsibility rests purely with the marketing department, messages will inevitably lack immediacy because of the need for corporate approvals and are likely to lose the ‘freshness’ that conversations over social media networks typically need to have.

Also social networks are a great listening platform: a great way to quickly and easily find out about trends in the industry but still more importantly what people are saying about your competitors and about you. A Twitter search can uncover some surprising insights – but only if it is used as a listening tool rather than a sales ‘mouthpiece’.

Richard Alvin, managing director, Capital Business Media, finds that, “there is too much focus on using social media tools for marketing and promotional purposes and too little on engaging with and listening to customers and prospects. Twitter is, in some cases, just being employed as a broadcast tool not as an interactive means of conversational engagement.”

2. Strategy First

There is sometimes a temptation for SMEs who embrace social media to let it dictate their business strategy. This would be a major mistake. The business strategy should always come first. Instead, organisations should use social media as a means of executing on that strategy, helping them to build their credibility in the marketplace, generate sales and deliver better customer service.

As Alvin puts it, “social media networking and sites, whether they are used as marketing tools or as a means of driving awareness and customer engagement, are ultimately dependent on the knowledge, awareness and expertise of the people that use them. While social media adoption rates are high and increasing rapidly, in some businesses social media strategy and tactics still leave a lot to be desired.”

Before they make the move to social media, businesses need to go back to basic marketing principles. They need to understand their brand and the message they are trying to get across and they must ensure that this message is consistent. 

Equally, they need to ascertain who their target audience is, what market are they trying to reach and what tools are they currently using to try to reach that market.

These key elements must be used to shape strategy and then social media can be used as a tool to deliver it rather than the other way round.

3. Blog, LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook – Why ‘Build it and They will Come’ Won’t Work

Just having a presence on a particular social media site is not enough in itself to drive business advantage. You need to first select the right media for your business then work at it to build a following rather than just hoping that the following itself will find you.

As Sumner Smith indicates, “businesses that are selling business-to-business (B2B) and have little prior knowledge of social media should start by building a profile and a following on LinkedIn. This would deliver a host of benefits for SMEs, from allowing them to start or manage a group or fan page for their product, brand or business to enabling them to share survey and poll results with contacts.”

According to Hannah McNamara, managing director of HRM Coaching Ltd and a director of SME Academy in London, “if a professional services organisation is trying to sell a complex package of consultancy to a prospect, for example, Twitter, with its limit of 140 characters per tweet, is unlikely to suffice. However, Twitter might well be the most appropriate medium for a sales focused organisation with a relatively straightforward offer to promote. Ultimately, it has to be all about the context in which the proposition is made.”

Businesses, especially when they are operating in the B2B sphere, need to be aware of the dynamic of the particular network they are operating in. They need to ensure that the chosen site is appropriate to their audience, so for example, if they are communicating via Facebook, they need to make certain that their chosen audience regards Facebook as a medium for business communication rather than a private space.

Sumner Smith reports that he was successful in building a community of 10,000 members in one year on LinkedIn by forming relevant groups and sub-groups, feeding content in from relevant sources and adding in interactive tools. 

Another hot tip is to integrate Facebook into your website so that people can follow/like your business from there. If you have a form on your website, where you can capture contact details, ask for their Twitter ID and follow them. Ultimately, you will only build a thriving online business community if you are proactive rather than passive in your approach to communication.

4. Get Creative as a Sales Channel

When it comes to interacting with social media, one of the great benefits SMEs have is that they can be more agile in their communication. They are able to be more creative in the way they use social media because they can make decisions more quickly and obtain approvals for content faster than their larger enterprise peers and start to really foster a social selling culture in their business.

So while large businesses will tend to use tools like Twitter to promote exclusive offers, smaller businesses often have more agility to link to the topic-based news agenda. SMEs can, for example, put out an offer linking to the news within the same day to help promote their views and drive sales, whereas corporates typically cannot do that because they have to jump through so many hoops in terms of stakeholder approvals.

This speed of response to be able to piggyback on the news agenda is a major benefit for SMEs and it is good for customers too. Businesses can also blog about current events and by using blogs can establish themselves as an expert in the field because they have their finger on the pulse of the latest hot topics and issues. 

As McNamara points out: “It is also easier for SMEs to be creative in developing a personalised brand identity online. There needs to be a personal interactive side to any communication. People are much more likely to interact with a Twitter page with a photo attached to it than one with a logo.”

Again, this critical sense of personality may become overly sanitised if employees need to seek corporate approval before issuing their blogs, tweets or posts.

5. Beware of Social Experts!

Of course, SMEs need to bear in mind that while social media is capable of being a huge benefit to them, there are still many pitfalls out there for unwary businesses. There is a great deal of misinformation in the marketplace. “Many people portray themselves as being experts or gurus in social media,” says Sumner Smith “Typically they should be given a wide berth. The market is changing too rapidly for many people to be regarded as genuine experts in the field.”

Rather than listening to the advice of these self-styled specialists, SMEs would do much better to research the tactics that successful companies in their industry in the US have employed in order to achieve a range of benefits from social media. 

The latest research shows the UK lagging behind the US in terms of social media uptake. In fact, a study by monitoring company Meltwater and Loudhouse Research (via Communicate Magazine) shows that in some areas we have a lot of catching up to do, with 24 per cent of UK firms described as social media ‘averse’ compared to only 5 per cent of their US counterparts.

6. Social CRM and Team Collaboration

One of the most significant trends we are seeing in business today is that CRM systems are increasingly “going social”, making it easier for businesses to engage with prospects and service customers on social networks. If you are a SME with a contact database, a good next step will be to connect it to relevant data held on social networks. This in turn can help companies to collaborate, share documents and work on projects.

In the past, managers working for SMEs have had to waste valuable time searching for specific expertise and skill sets to build up ad hoc sales teams for key sales opportunities. Today, however, the process is much easier as they can leverage employee business profiles with professional background including contact details, area of expertise and work history.

Status updates also allow staff to automatically keep colleagues informed of critical tasks and activities through dynamic alerts and prevent duplication of effort as a result.   With these features, workers can even share files and links to provide additional context around a project, sales deal or customer support case.

With such customised approaches now available, it is becoming ever easier for SMEs to integrate social media functionality into their existing infrastructure and this is helping to further drive uptake of the approach among smaller businesses.

7. Metrics are Evolving

One of the main barriers to social media adoption in the past has been the lack of clear metrics available, by which businesses can measure the success of their sales and marketing campaigns, promotional programmes and the like. Followers/likes/comments are all obvious ways but the road to building up your social following can be long.

More mature organisations are measuring “share of voice” using tools like radian6 to capture hundreds of millions of posts each day and use this information to measure the conversation levels on a specific topic and the companies that are currently being mentioned.

8. Potential Gains

Social media is on the radar of small businesses today. Attracted by its potential to drive sales opportunities and to enhance customer engagement, they are increasingly embracing the technology. The most enlightened are using social media to compete on a level playing field with their larger enterprise peers. SMEs are now starting to develop their own versions of social media materials which drive real-time collaboration across the business.

However, more still needs to be done. If SMEs are to realise the full potential of social media, usage must be based on a coherent business strategy. To be successful social media needs to be a route to engagement not simply a tool for issuing sales messages.

Nevertheless, we are today witnessing a revolution in the attitudes of SMEs to social media. Today, these organisations are increasingly seeing the potential that social media provides. As the approach gathers momentum, growing numbers of SMEs will switch to the new approach and start reaping the rewards. If they want to lead the conversation, following the seven recommendations above would be a good way to start.

Contributor Biographies

Dave Sumner Smith

Programme director, B2 Business Hub

- Dave Sumner Smith is currently programme director at the B2 Business Hub and owner of WordZone Ltd.
- He plays a key role at the B2 Business Hub, with 325,000 members from small and medium-sized businesses.
- He has 14 years’ experience of the small and mid-sized business sector through managing The Sunday Times Enterprise Network and the Telegraph Business Club.

Richard Alvin

Managing director, Capital Business Media

- Richard Alvin is managing director of the business media and publishing and research company, Capital Business Media, which has offices in London and New York.
- The company owns the UK’s leading business monthly business magazine, Business Matters, the global fund management multimedia title, Fund Manager Today and Angels, the business based leisure lifestyle for high-networth individuals who have an interest in business angel investments.

Hannah McNamara

Managing director of HRM Coaching Ltd and a director of SME Academy

- Hannah McNamara has over 15 years experience in sales and marketing, including senior management experience within national and international organisations. She has experience of working both client-side and agencyside.
- McNamara is a chartered marketer, a member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, a qualified coach and speaks at business exhibitions and events.
- She has recently written for Accountancy Age, TrainingZone and STV’s web site as well as being included in a feature in Marketing magazine. She has also been interviewed by the BBC.


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