Yesterday at BarCamp Ohio I sat listening to a conversation among people who were trying to balance the need to be involved in social media outreach with the need to run their businesses. Their frustration was based on the fear that as they finally embraced a social network or site, the masses would move some place new. For a company focused on running a business instead of playing in the social media sphere, it's a valid concern.
As someone who remembers the massive rush to (and from) sites like Orkut and Spock over the last few years, I know most social media applications have a limited life span. The concepts will remain, but new companies will pop up with better ways of doing things, just as Google pushed Alta Vista and Northern Light aside in the search world. So while I adore Twitter and LinkedIn today, I also realize something better may come along down the road.
The Bleeding Edge of Social Media
While part of my job is testing and playing with these new applications and networks to find out what has practical application for small business, that isn't the job of most small business owners. Which brings me to my point.
It is simply not practical for most small businesses to be on the bleeding edge of social media adoption.
They call it the "bleeding edge" for a reason, you know.
In fact, that bastion of collective knowledge known as Wikipedia defines the bleeding edge like this:
...technology that is so new (and thus, presumably, not perfected) that the user is required to risk reductions in stability and productivity in order to use it."
Now, let's consider the last part of the definition again, shall we?
...risk reductions in stability and productivity in order to use it."
The majority of small businesses I've dealt with do not have the ability to risk reductions in stability or productivity. They're generally all working their tails off to build their companies and meet payroll.
Not an Excuse to Ignore Social Media
Now, in no way should this post be taken as me telling small businesses not to work on incorporating a social media plan into their marketing. Social media is fast becoming one of the absolute most important channels for small businesses to consider. Never before have companies had such insight into the thoughts of their customers.
That said, companies seem to fall into two general categories when it comes to social media. They either run full speed trying to stay ahead of the curve or they shrink back in fear, afraid to take a chance on any site. Unfortunately, both groups end up dealing with a different type of trouble. They either waste time that could better be spent running their business, or they miss out on the opportunities to grow their business.
The true challenge for small businesses when it comes to social media isn't deciding whether or not to get involved, it's in remembering to balance the needs of your business with the need to market your company. It's why the person in charge of your social media initiative needs to have a knack for both exploration and valuation.
The Value is in the Leading Edge, Not the Bleeding Edge
The nice thing about the bleeding edge is if you take just a few steps back, you can enjoy the view without the bleeding. That should be the goal of most small businesses...to stand near enough to the edge to see the big picture, but to stay far enough from the edge to avoid getting hurt.
For the greatest majority of businesses, there's nothing wrong with hanging back and waiting to see if a new social media option will "take." Playing in well established spaces like YouTube, Flickr and Facebook is entirely different than investing the time in Plurk, Utterz, Seesmic and any other funny named social media site to pop up.
Established social media sites also have established user bases. They've reached a point of saturation high enough to make them worth using. While the hot new social media network might be getting a lot of press, it's important to remember the press comes far before the users, at least in terms of having enough users to create a base worth marketing non-tech products to. Even something as talked about as Twitter still has only around 1.2 million registered accounts.
There's no shame in taking your time to find out if a social network is going to continue to grow before getting involved. You still want to get in early, you just don't need to be the first person there. In fact, one of the best ways to decide if a social media site is right for you is if your customers are there. It's easy enough to scan the conversation at sites like Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook and other sites to find out what's being talked about.
If you see conversation taking place related to your products or services, it might be a good place to get involved. If not, your time is probably better spent elsewhere.
Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.
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