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Small-business trends in search and social media

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The Internet is leveling the playing field so small companies can compete for customers with large ones. Online marketing and distribution have challenged traditional cost structures and business models, and removed geographical boundaries.

But most small business owners don't keep up with the evolving world of search and social media. They have their businesses to run and wear many hats. Though they may be familiar with the term, most simply do not understand the value or benefits of social marketing to their business.

The trends in search continue to reinforce the idea that the best answer to a query is found at the top of the results page. Whether the search query result contains evergreen content, is from social media networks or is fresh content from bloggers, the landscape hasn't changed. It's just become more crowded.

What is a small business owner to do to make sure he's keeping up with evolving trends? What steps can he take to ensure he's maximizing his online presence via search and social media, particularly vital for the business that doesn't have the resources to manage its own website? Here are some tips:

• Integrating local. A small-business owner can update a listing that exists on a business-list site, or develop his own for his company on a site like LinkedIn, and make it accurate and up-to-date. He can enhance the data and have a much better chance of his company profile showing up for certain relevant keywords at the top of a search result lists. For some owners, these small steps can lift the visibility of a business online without the need for a company web-site.

• Choose wisely. Savvy small-business owners realize that there are various types of social media they need to participate in, since each one may cater to different users. While your customers might use general networks like Facebook, you may wish to connect with your industry peers on business listings sites or ones that cater to a specific vertical industry, such as GlobalSpec.com for engineers.

• Becoming vertical. What's evolving in social media is similar to what the search world has already experienced: A “verticalization” of social sites is beginning to happen—not as an exclusive participation in one social site, but in several sites, since the demographics of each will dictate what your objective is in participating.

This requires exponential scaling to become a significant contributor to a marketing or lead-generation program. The benefit of participating in several sites is that they can typically cater to sophisticated targeting, allowing companies to promote their business to the right audience. In addition, participation in these sites can eliminate cost over time.

To get started, first observe your competitors, customers and industry peers in their preferred online environments. Then, determine what you want to do with the various social solutions—for example, grow the visibility of your organization and thereby increase awareness; gain revenue share; demonstrate thought leadership, etc. Lastly, decide on the voice of the company. Start by offering wisdom and expertise. Perhaps progress to offering customer support, if appropriate.

• Getting one-to-one. Many very small businesses have disrupted large companies with their innovative business models or product offerings that are now available on the Internet in a “democratized fashion.” Small-business owners need to understand that today, the user knows best and is public about it. Users vote on which products they prefer, and this is where a one-to-one relationship with a company levels the playing field.

Organizations have clearly seen the efficiency and scale for acquiring new customers and promoting their companies. Social media and networking sites can not only give organizations another place to have a presence but also provide the tools for the personal communication vital to any successful relationship.

Pamela Springer is CEO of small business information site Manta (www.manta.com). She can be reached at pspringer@manta.com.

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