The benefits of social networking as a marketing tool for small business are well documented.
It costs nothing to start and grow your own social media presence and following to which you can broadcast all kinds of engaging and promotional information.
Unfortunately smaller business is proving slow to convince, with still relatively few SMEs providing an active social networking presence.
And there are very good reasons for this social reticence.
An eye opener in Doncaster
Recently I was asked to present an introductory session on social networking for business to a group of local smaller business operators in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.
The group was typical of your smaller business audience: everyone from retailers to home-based business operators to small manufacturers, all keen to find out more about this much vaunted medium.
But it wasn’t long before this keenness turned to something approaching at best nervousness, at worst downright fear.
As much as I pointed out the benefits that a well planned and executed social networking program could provide, the factor that had the room murmuring with trepidation was when it came to handling negative responses on their various social networks.
Managing negative comments or worse
It was when I demonstrated some real life visitor responses on business social networking pages that the mood took a turn for the worse.
Many were shocked that page visitors could show such spite and vitriol to a fellow small and ultimately well-meaning business operator.
Others soon realised just how much monitoring and maintenance was required to keep their social networking presence not only free of unsupervised nasties, but replying to pretty much anyone who commented or asked them a question.
Others again realised how exposed their business was, and how handing it over to your well-meaning child or other family member was all of a sudden not an option.
The reaction of the group underscored why small business are just so loath to embrace such a powerful and cheap promotional medium.
As much as they are interested in a medium which costs nothing to establish and maintain, the fundamental obstacle that keeps rearing its ugly head is time.
Time, the real enemy
Time to learn how it works, time to attract new friends and followers, time to post relevant information and time to respond to those who comment: then, once some mastery of the medium is achieved, time to monitor results and improve.
But it’s the learning curve component which remains the biggest barrier to entry.
It has to be remembered that the vast bulk of smaller business operators are quite different in age to young social networking power users.
According to ABS statistics, 90% of Australian small business owners are older than 30.
Conversely, the largest group of Facebook users is the under 30 demographic.
So social networking doesn’t come as naturally to smaller business operators as it does to its core user group.
Therefore they need to spend time and/or money on getting their sea legs in a medium that (again) takes time to realise a positive return on investment. And they are both something that most have had little of in recent times.
And as last week’s controversial Internet Secret pointed out, the notion of providing and maintaining regular information is something that smaller business is completely unaccustomed to – unlike their well-resourced bigger business counterparts.
As young and regular social networkers come to own their own businesses, Social Networking will gradually become a mainstay of small business communication and marketing plans.
But for the current crop of small business owners, it will remain something that eludes them for some time yet – despite their interest in its well-documented benefits.
In addition to being a leading eBusiness educator to the smaller business sector, Craig Reardon is the founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team, which was established to address the special website and web marketing needs of SMEs in Melbourne and beyond.