What large businesses know about social engagement

One of the most telling things about “studies” of social media is the size of businesses that the studies benchmark.

recent survey of small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) published by BIA/Kelsey defined SMBs as having between 1-99 employees, a survey group that undermined their conclusions somewhat.  Obviously a sole proprietorship behaves and spends quite differently than most businesses, and most SMBs probably don’t want to benchmark their marketing against bloggers monetizing through affiliate links.

Conversely, the Burson-Marsteller Global Social Media Check Up 2012 and the IBM’s Institute for Business Value’s “Business of Social Business” reports benchmark the other end of the spectrum: huge multinational corporations.  And while the extraordinary budgets that these companies enjoy prevent them from being a great benchmark for the majority of SMBs, there are two statistics in these studies that are important to understand and internalize.

SMBs can be more efficient than bigger businesses with deliberate metrics

IBM reports that just 20% of large businesses measure their social media presence with KPIs and other metrics.  This means two things for SMBs:

A large majority of the social media initiatives that large companies are running cannot explicitly be shown to be successful.  There should be a huge premium on any activity shown to be successful and everything else should be considered with a healthy amount of skepticism.  What the big guys are doing isn’t necessarily the most effective tactic to use in social channels.

While SMBs can’t compete with the scale of the big guys, they can be much more shrewd and efficient by incorporating metrics into their social media.  This is a good practice anyhow, but report after report has shown that thoughtful measurement can be a point of differentiation for any business, size-agnostic.

SMBs that don’t engage their customers D2C may need to reconsider

The most shocking statistic from the Burston analysis was that 79% of businesses do direct-to-consumer engagement using @mentions on Twitter and 70% of businesses are responding directly to posts on walls and Timelines.  What I think this means for SMBs is that D2C engagement may at some point become a point of differentiation in favor of bigger businesses.  An SMB that wants to compete in a social space may someday soon have to consider devoting a large portion of resource to this.  And Gary Vaynerchuk will be vindicated.

That said, I think that the effectiveness of large brands using this tactic is largely overstated.  Many businesses employ social listening to rectify grievances and autoresponders (have you used your Walgreens card?) in response to people, but I don’t see a lot of outreach or intercourse in this space yet.  But if any of these companies decided to employ a D2C strategy they seem exceptionally well positioned to do so.  You’ve been warned.

A word about the Joneses

In a book about management in the service industry, Peter Drucker described that the one point of differentiation is how a business allocates its resources.  Social media doesn’t diminish his insight in the least.  In fact it may add another resource variable to the mix.

One could read the first paragraph of the IBM study: “The question surrounding social media today is not whether you are doing it, but whether you are doing enough.” and think they need to allocate more resources to social media.  Of course, this study is probably not written with a SMB in mind (or if so, a big MB :) ).  One could read that 25% of the Fortune 100 have a Pinterest account and about half have a Google Plus account and think that they need to double down into other platforms (though businesses really should be on Google Plus managing their Google Plus Local page).  They might read about the innovative things that Scott Monty is doing with product-line specific social channels, or Proctor and Gamble is doing with Facebook integration and think those are achievable goals.  Trying to keep up with THESE Joneses would be irresponsible for most SMBs.

According to Vocus and Duct Tape Marketing an average SMB (defined as revenue between $5-$50 mil) will spend a little over $10K on social media management this year with no staff person dedicated to that task.  Extrapolate from that how much budget a Fortune 100 company has to spend to manage all of their accounts.  Point being – a SMB’s resources are minuscule compared to the businesses in these studies.

To my earlier point about Drucker’s insight: SMBs have a small amount of resource to dedicate to everything they do.  They could easily try to keep up with the Walmarts of the world and blow their marketing budgets on social media.   It’s probably more prudent to plan deliberate and efficient campaigns within a reasonable budget, measure metrics that reflect the goal of the campaigns, and constantly re-evaluate their effectiveness.

As for: “the question surrounding social media today is not whether you are doing it, but whether you are doing enough.”  For large businesses this may be a perfectly reasonable question (remember also that these reports are written specifically for that audience).  However, for businesses with limited resources I see little reason to retain a poorly-maintained social presence justified by conventional wisdom or unrealistic expectations.


Photo Credit

Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

Writer and chief of miscellany at leaderswest.com
I'm the guy that wrote the article you just read. Sorry for the typos.