It seems that everywhere you turn these days, someone is promoting social media as the lowest cost, highest impact marketing channel available for small business owners. And that right there is a problem. Far too many people are promoting this idea — many of whom are those likely to benefit if you make use of their media channel, enroll in their social media class, or hire them to manage your social media for you.

But what is the reality? A recent study reported by eMarketer shows that only 42% of small business owners who use social media marketing are receiving sales leads from Facebook, 36% from LinkedIn, and 16% from Twitter. That’s a pretty poor showing from a marketing channel that’s being touted as so effective.

The study doesn’t indicate the quantity of leads these businesses are getting, or what percentage they’ve been able to convert into paying customers. But it does report how much these leads are costing them. More than 70% of the small businesses surveyed say they are either losing money or no more than breaking even on their investment in social media. Ouch! What small business can afford that?

How is it that so many small business owners are being misled about the value of social media for their marketing? Let’s consider this question for independent professionals, the small business owners I know best.

First of all, social media is not a marketing strategy or even a set of tactics. It’s a platform for marketing that can be used in a wide variety of ways, like the telephone, email, or the Internet itself. You can use social media to execute any of the six strategies that independent professionals typically employ: direct contact and follow-up, networking and referral-building, public speaking, writing and publicity, promotional events, or advertising.

Ranked from most effective to least effective, the strategies above are listed in order. For an independent professional seeking clients, the least effective marketing strategy is advertising. But this is exactly how self-employed professionals are most often using social media. They are hosting company pages and posting status updates that consist primarily of sales messages about their services, products, and programs. No wonder they’re not getting the results they expect.

The best use of social media for independent professionals is to execute the most effective strategies rather than the least. That means using it for direct contact and follow-up, and networking and referral-building.

Social media is no different in this respect from any other marketing channel for professionals. Phoning someone you already know to have a conversation is much more effective than having a robot deliver voice mails to strangers. A personal email to share helpful resources with an existing contact works much better than sending promotional email broadcasts to people who never heard of you.

What social media is best for is actually what it was originally designed for. Remember when we called it social networking? For the independent professional, that is still this platform’s best use — networking with people you already know in order to stay in touch and deepen your relationship.

There are many nuances to the effective use of social media I don’t have space to detail in this article. For example, the awareness that networking must be reciprocal rather than self-centered. You can’t just keep putting out your own information and never read or respond to what others have to say. Or the need to balance promotional items with healthy doses of useful, entertaining, or inspiring posts if you want people to keep following you.

Or recognizing that a significant number of the people who choose to follow you are doing so just so you will follow them back, and will never read anything you post. Or admitting that your attraction to social media may be that it allows you to stay in your office and never have to speak with strangers, thereby avoiding rejection.

But the overriding issue for any independent professional to resolve about social media is this. What is the role it should play in your overall marketing plan?

For businesses in general, social media can be a useful tool for creating brand awareness and market visibility. But small businesses can rarely afford that type of visibility marketing, and independent professionals even less so.

The smaller the business and more personal the service being delivered, the more important it becomes to focus your marketing plan specifically on client acquisition. That is, identifying prospects who might become clients and following up with them until you close the sale.

Looking through that narrow lens, the most fitting uses of social media for independent professionals are not brand awareness, market visibility, or even attracting new prospects (as the study quoted above shows). Instead, its best uses are one avenue (among others) to network with your existing contacts, and to follow up with prospects you attract in other ways.

In other words, social media can play a part — and perhaps a small part — in your marketing plan. It can’t carry the whole plan. You need to use other strategies to attract prospects in the first place, and other channels to follow up with them after you do.

Is social media marketing a boondoggle? Not necessarily. Social media, like any marketing channel, has its uses. But neither is it the ultimate boon to small business marketers that many are claiming.

There is still no “silver bullet” solution for marketing your professional services at zero cost in your spare time. You still have to invest time and money to identify likely prospects, follow up with them to deepen relationships, and have sales conversations that expose you to rejection. And that will be true no matter what new technology for marketing is invented next month or next year.

Copyright © 2010, C.J. Hayden. All rights reserved.

This article was first published in the November 2010 issue of the Get Clients Now! E-Letter, and has not appeared in any print publication. If you would like to reprint it, please contact me for permission.

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