What started off as places where people can connect, share details about their daily lives with friends and catch up on some timely news has become an advertising and marketing powerhouse for brands big and small across the world.
Social media as we know it got its start in the early 2000s. Sites like Myspace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube came out at that time, and they've grown like wildfire ever since. It's estimated that there were 2.77 billion social media users around the globe in 2017. Many dismissed social media as a fad, but the past decade and multibillion-dollar valuations for companies like Facebook have silenced any naysayers.
To drive the point home even further, it's estimated that there were 80 million SMB Facebook pages as of 2018. To put that in perspective, there were only 1,128,112 retail establishments in the United States as of the last census taken in 2007. I think it's safe to say that social media isn't a passing fad and that investing in a business page, retail or otherwise, is a rule rather than an exception.
As a retailer, you know how important it is to connect and build relationships with your customers. From the niche boutique hosting an invite-only wine tasting to merchandisers running loyalty programs, customer loyalty, brand affinity and repeat business is essential for growth. With retail facing uncertain times, social media can provide a competitive advantage for retailers being forced to compete against e-commerce behemoths like Amazon, eBay and Walmart by focusing on the very things that set them apart: locality, independence and their small size. Let's dive into the five advantages that small retailers have when it comes to using social media.
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1. You're more connected to your customers.
The biggest retailers can leverage their brand recognition, vertically integrate their supply chain and take advantage of economies of scale to pass discounts to their customers. When it comes to price, smaller retailers often can't compete with the likes of Amazon and Walmart, but social media is one area where size does more harm than good. Larger businesses aren't all that personable. Their human component is often relegated to a vaguely relatable stock photo you swear you saw somewhere else. This is where being a small business retailer gives you a competitive edge. Founder narratives, community involvement and personal touch are the human components you can provide that the big guys often don't.
Somehow, I don't see Amazon congratulating the local high school football team on winning the championship this year, but a local small business retailer certainly could (and should).
2. Social media is tribal.
Social media organic audience growth is premised on the idea that, as people connect with your branded business page and interact with what you post, the interaction will be visible to a second audience of that person's digital friends. Often, those will be other local people with similar interests. Small independent retailers often develop a unique brand, line of products and business aesthetic that sets them apart.
Coffee shops, restaurants, boutique stores and many other independent retailers craft their image to appeal to a certain audience. The more defined you are as a brand, the more likely you are to develop your digital tribe that resonates with your aesthetic and messaging. Go ahead – invest in that quirky sign and wall mural.
3. You can cultivate your reputation.
It wasn't all that long ago that small business retailers only suffered setbacks or found success through word-of-mouth marketing. Today, that's gone digital. Google has business pages, Yelp and Facebook host reviews, Twitter can be used to publicly praise or chastise a business, and Instagram hashtags can be used to curate branded user-generated content. Social media has opened a can of worms or an opportunity, depending on your perspective. Responding to negative reviews in a timely fashion is a must, and cultivating positive reviews pays dividends.
Small retailers have an advantage when it comes to reviews, as their reviews are generally viewed as more trustworthy. Products found on Amazon, Walmart and other big retailers are often susceptible to manipulation. The sites make a concerted effort to remove fake reviews, but their sheer size makes it nearly impossible to catch every fake review, whereas a small retailer will often have a smaller pool of reviews that can be examined by would-be customers to confirm their authenticity. Send your customers thank-you cards and emails asking them to submit a review. Often, just asking is enough to get some reviews online. If a negative review comes in, reach out to the customer publicly to show that you take their feedback seriously. Offer to remedy the situation in a mutually agreeable way. Going the extra mile to resolve that blotch on your online reputation is often more than worth it.
4. Local retail benefits the community.
Shopping locally has tremendous benefits. It strengthens the local economy, creates jobs and keeps capital circulating back into the pockets of other local businesses. Consumers are more conscious of this today than ever before, as they've seen Main Street shops struggle and close down, and there's a serious impetus to reverse the trend in favor of local consumption at independently owned business establishments. The trend is likely to continue, as environmentalism and the waste of long-haul transport has become a prominent political talking point in the national discourse.
As a small business retailer, odds are you have a local storefront. Playing to this ethos through social media with humanized posts related to your community, the people in it, and your role in supporting the community will pay dividends.
5. Engagement is in your corner.
Social media metrics can overwhelm even the most data-savvy person. With so much information available, it can be tough to hone in on what really matters. Should you focus on how many followers you're gaining, your audience demographics or the time of day your users are online? Yes, all of the above, but only after focusing on your engagement metrics. Everything else is secondary.
Posting every day isn't recommended; rather, you should focus on making sure any posts that do go out are geared toward generating engagement. Keeping things candid, relevant and timely goes a long way toward generating engagement. If you're only talking about yourself, then your message will probably fall on deaf ears. Social media advertisements are better suited for self-promotion.
Social media's future outlook
As we roll into 2019, now is the time to start setting your intentions for social media if you haven't already. 2018 was generally a good year for retailers. Buoyed by tax cuts, the U.S. economy beat out expectations and grew by 2.6%, with the lowest unemployment rate in nearly 50 years, but 2019 is looking less certain. Trade tensions between the U.S. and China, tariffs, and an uncertain stock market has muted even the most vociferous pundits when it comes to clear-cut predictions.
That being said, social media is one area where a savvy retailer could focus their marketing efforts today so they are prepared for the leaner times that may lie ahead.