As I talk to small business owners, particularly those on "Main Street", the recurring theme is their belief that social media doesn't apply to them. They typically chalk it up to to large corporate budgets or entertainment for young people. And while the underlying feeling is, "My business is based on referrals and relationships, not technology," I say that's precisely why Main Street businesses MUST use social media.
Your average local accountant, barber shop, restaurant, and boutique retailer build much of their business through foot traffic, local advertising, and networking. Across the board, networking is the biggest and most reliable source – referrals (leveraging someone else's trusted relationship) and face-to-face interaction (creating a trusted relationship).
The Internet was initially built as a way for education and military institutions to share information with others. When it became available to business, the same model applied in communicating with customers. A company would create their website and broadcast their message to whomever found their way to the virtual storefront.
Yet unlike brick-and-mortar storefronts, there was no equivalent method of having a conversation with that customer. Without a conversation, it was extremely difficult to really connect with people and create those trusted relationships. Because of that technological limitation, many small businesses simply abandoned or ignored the Internet as a way of generating business.
But the time has now come where technology has caught up to the needs of Main Street, and social media is the prime vehicle. It no longer relies on the "broadcast" communication style of the old Internet. It's even moved beyond mere interactivity. Social media provides a real way to create that same connection, conversation, and trust that has always made Main Street businesses successful.
At the heart of social media is the customer's own innate desire to have a trusted relationship. Spam, banners, email, video ads, et al. have flooded the minds of customers for years. While they've adapted to filter them out as much as they can, new broadcast methods are created every day. Social media outlets like blogs, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook give customers a way to find and cultivate those connections, have conversations, and build those relationships.
Any business owner can now go to a site like Twitter, search for people that are talking about their brand, industry, or product, and start conversations with those people. Note that I didn't say "start selling". Social media conversations are your opportunity to establish yourself as credible, helpful, and valuable. After that, the selling comes much more easily. The best part is that because your conversation is public, many others will benefit from your contribution, which helps to grow your popularity naturally and organically (i.e., word of mouth).
I remember years ago I went to a Japanese restaurant and ordered some miso soup. Normally I eat my soup with a spoon, but this particular restaurant didn't give me one. I noticed that no one else got one either. They only gave us chopsticks. I like to have my soup while it's hot. The waitress was very busy so I couldn't even get her attention to get me a spoon, and my soup was losing its warmth. Then I noticed that the other people in the restaurant were enjoying their soup by simply picking up the bowl and drinking from it directly. Occasionally they would stir the soup with their chopsticks to help cool it down and pick up the little pieces of tofu and seaweed. While it seemed odd to me, they looked as if it was a natural way for them to have their soup. With no waitress in sight I picked up my bowl and started drinking. To my surprise, I really enjoyed it! It was different, yet I was still able to enjoy my soup while it was hot. And to this day when I go to a Japanese restaurant, even if they give me a spoon, I still pick up the bowl.
With today's economic climate, in order for Main Street businesses to thrive (not just survive), they must be open to new ways of cultivating the same relationships they're seeking. No one knows if or when the spoon is going to come. It's time to pick up the bowl…