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6/22/2011
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Do Nonsocial SMBs Know Something We Don't?

Nearly half of online adults in the U.S. are on a social network, but branded usage by smaller companies is closer to 25%. Here are four reasons why it may be smart for nonsocial SMBs to stay that way for now.

Top 20 Apps For Managing Social Media
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Top 20 Apps For Managing Social Media
There's the old saying: "If it was easy, everyone would do it." So why does branded social media usage by small and midsize businesses lag adoption by the general public?

In a recent Zoomerang poll of 500 SMBs about social media tactics, roughly one in four said their company has a branded social presence. Earlier in the year, The SMB Group found higher adoption rates--44% of small businesses (1-100 employees) and around half of midsize firms (100-1,000 employees) were using social sites. But the SMB Group research found many of those companies were doing so in ad-hoc fashion, essentially just kicking the tires. If you remove ad-hoc usage, just 24% of small businesses and one in three midsize firms had a structured social presence.

Compare that with the latest Pew Research Center number on general usage: Nearly half of online adults in the U.S. are now on at least one social site. If the audience is so big--and getting bigger--why aren't more SMBs hopping on the bandwagon? It's cheap and it's easy--that old adage says everyone should be doing it.

The low barrier to entry to Facebook and other social sites doesn't make them a slam-dunk for every business. The relative newness of it, particularly in business contexts, means there's no straightforward formula for success. In fact, there are some good reasons why "nonsocial" SMBs might be wise to proceed with caution. Here are four of them.

"I don't want to--or simply can't--surrender control."

A funny thing about branded social media: It requires the business to give up quite a bit of control over the brand. Users have a tremendous degree of power over the appearance of "your" Facebook page, for example. That's a tremendous engagement tool when things are going well--and a very public forum when things don't.

"You're opening yourself up for everyone to come in and interact with you," said SMB Group partner Laurie McCabe in an interview. "Now you've got this entry point into your company and your brand that you have to exert of a lot of monitoring over."

That can be a concern for some SMBs, and a deal-breaker for others--particularly those burdened with heavy-duty compliance issues such as law firms or healthcare businesses. The entry point McCabe refers to has another context: Online security. Social media creates a new wave of potential threats that businesses need to deal with.

"I might damage my company's image--or its bottom line."

Social media's ease of use is often listed as a key benefit--but it can just as easily backfire.

"With social media, if you make a mistake the ramifications are potentially larger," said Zoomerang GM Alex Terry in an interview. "There's some wise cautiousness from some of these SMBs because the cost of a mistake is perceived to be higher."

Indeed, a cavalier approach to social media can land you in real trouble--a growing list of big businesses and individuals have had public relations disasters on Twitter, for example--Chrysler and Kenneth Cole come to mind, not to mention a certain politician. SMBs are no exception. Take The Redner Group, a PR firm specializing in video games. Its founder recently suggested on the company's branded Twitter feed that it would withhold future review copies to certain media outlets following unfavorable coverage, sparking an online uproar in the lucrative gaming world. In spite of a public apology--also via Twitter--Redner's client, 2KGames, fired the agency.

"I have no idea why I'm doing this or how I'm going to measure its success."

The pressure to follow a trend can be immense for some businesses, even if they can't come up with a good reason to do so. For others, a certain degree of skepticism might be in order. McCabe of The SMB Group notes that there are companies listening closely from the social sidelines that remain wary of how active participation will actually help them. McCabe's recent research found, for example, that midsize firms with no social media plans listed the difficulty of measuring effectiveness as one of the top reasons why.

McCabe describes the mindset: "Do I do something just because everybody else seems to be doing it, even though I'm not really sure that it's going to help my business? Convince me that there's some outcome here for this time and effort."

"I was told this would be easy."

Smaller businesses have a unique advantage in that they're often much more closely connected to their customers than larger enterprises, but that edge runs dull if your social presence lacks authenticity and enthusiasm. To derive business value will still require an investment, even if it's non-monetary. A recent Global CIO column put it this way: The half-hearted approach is worse than none at all.

And there are plenty of ways to game the system, so to speak--if you want a gazillion Facebook likes or Twitter followers overnight, there's probably an app for that. Prudent SMBs have already seen through the fleeting value of those methods.

"I don't know if those can possibly work, because at the end of the day it is about being authentic," McCabe said. "People who are engaged with social media get very turned off by disingenuous behavior."

You can't afford to keep operating without redundancy for critical systems--but business units must prioritize before IT begins implementation. Also in the new, all-digital InformationWeek SMB supplement: Avoid the direct-attached storage trap. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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