Small businesses shouldn’t be intimidated by social media

Some basic retail truths can set SMBs on the right path

I grew up in retail – in the fabric and drapery business, actually. And one thing I remember my dad saying is “the customer is always right.”

As a young teenager, I took that literally and would often get into arguments with my dad trying to prove how impossible that was. But I was missing the point. For him, it was less an absolute and more about serving customers by looking at the world through their eyes.

He did that by welcoming them into his store, helping and not being too pushy about the sell. And they, in turn, trusted his advice and spread the word about my dad’s business to their families and friends. And kept coming back.

My dad didn’t know it at the time, but he was acting like a community manager.

I’ve been thinking about my dad’s approach to retail a lot lately because I just created a course for the online training site,, on how small businesses can use social media for marketing.

That’s not an easy task because entrepreneurs often want to do it all yet are strapped for staff, resources and time. The business is the priority, not social media and that’s the way it should be.

So I took a step back and reflected on social media marketing for small businesses from the way my dad ran his store for over 45 years. Here are three tips based on his approach:

Social media is a conversation, not a pitch
When people entered my dad’s store, he never said, “Can I help you?” He knew the answer to that would be, “No thanks, I’m just looking.” And then customers would beetle out of there the first chance they had. Instead, he just said a friendly hello, observed them and, when he sensed they were comfortable started up a conversation.

Stories begin with the customer
Content was a big thing for my dad, though he never would have called it that. The fabric business is all about imagination, seeing a bolt of cloth and visualizing the finished product and you’d look in it. My dad was an expert at inspiring customers by presenting the elements they needed to bring their stories to life.

Analytics count
I remember walking into a mall with my dad and remarking on how much of a success it was because it was so busy. My dad glanced around and said he didn’t think the store owners would say that. What he noticed was how few people there were carrying shopping bags. For my dad, those bags were a measure of success because they meant sale plus word of mouth promotion.

And here’s some advice from me:

Social media is always on – even when you’re not
That’s hard when you’ve got a small staff and no extra time. Accept that you can’t be everywhere and pick the channels you know your customers are using to showcase your brand personality. Just be sure your customers want to interact with you there!

Social media is not a solo activity
You may only have one or two employees, so get to know what their passions are beyond your business. Maybe one is really into video or photography and can create visuals your business can share. Just be realistic about people’s time and give them a chance to set up a personal/professional divide.

Social media is fast, relationships take time
And one dumb, but public, misstep can undo years of customer relations before your eyes. No matter how small you are, craft a simple, straightforward social media policy and communicate it clearly to your staff.

Social media marketing can seem daunting and adds another layer of work onto an already stressed staff. But if you make smart choices, integrate it with your traditional channels, don’t try to do everything and always think about your customers, you’ll be counting your shopping bags in no time.

How do you use social media to market your small business?

Martin Waxman is president of Martin Waxman Communications, is a author and teaches digital strategy at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and Seneca College. You can find him on Twitter @martinwaxman.

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