Despite complaints about user privacy and the sharing of personal data, Facebook remains the de facto powerhouse in the world of social media. It may have started out as a place to connect with friends, but with 2.23 billion users worldwide it isn't hard to see why it matters to marketers.
For the past decade Facebook has been a proven way for small businesses to connect with customers -- at least in theory. Although many millennials and even some older users see it as passé, it has a massive audience, offering a great way to connect with potential customers. That makes it a no-brainer for a small business, right?
Maybe not, because more users doesn't necessarily translate into more customers, and the efforts that go into promoting a brand or small business actually might be put to better use elsewhere. Ads on Facebook may be targeted accurately, but getting eyeballs isn't enough if you can't close the deal, make the sale, or see a positive return on your investment.
Simply put, Facebook advertising is the latest gimmick that promises more than it delivers in the digital age.
In the 1970s and 1980s the "Yellow Pages" was the place to "let your fingers do the walking" and find businesses listed alongside competitors. The phone book listing had the advantage of offering information to customers looking for your product or service.
In the 1990s and early 2000s a Web presence became essential -- not only a Web page but the right URL. This was a still a largely passive way to tell a story about your brand, offer information, and provide a way for customers to connect with you through multiple channels including phone and email.
As a reporter who has watched the development of the World Wide Web since the 1990s, I have found it strange that in recent years some small businesses put more effort into a Facebook page than their actual website. This strikes me as an unnecessary duplication of effort, especially as many small businesses simply don't have time to update their timeline and post the sort of things that define social media. It also means that less time is available to keep the website relevant -- such as updating merchandise listings in some cases.
Worse still, Facebook creates yet another channel for communication, so in addition to responding to calls and emails, there are messages and comments that must be addressed. This is more cumbersome due to the added layer of logging into Facebook.
Typically you get an email that alerts you to a new message or comment. How is that more effective or efficient?
Facebook Efforts Don't Pay Off
Much of the above criticism of Facebook is based on my personal experience. In addition to being a freelance writer, I run a small antique business, and I'm a partner in a small independent publishing company.
At one time Facebook did strike me as a good way to promote both -- but based on my experiences, I would suggest that other small businesses reconsider before wasting too much effort.
I have used Facebook as a way to promote my offerings and build my brand as much as a small business could.
In a few short years I amassed more than 500 followers, which isn't overly impressive or significant. However, it took a great detail of effort. On average, I reach from 1,000 to 1,500 users weekly. For a small business with a very specific product line, that should be enough to keep me busy. It does -- but not with the selling of actual products so much as "working" Facebook.
To get eyeballs to my business page, I tried to do more than just show new products. I shared stories from the media that might be of interest to my followers, posted photos from various collectible shows, and offered insights on items in my own collection or items I had sold. In other words, I did my best to be social and engage with the audience.
This approach did get some attention, and in some cases stirred up a debate. I regularly "reach" hundreds of people, and the engagement seems reasonable. That should be good news, and many small business owners might be excited to engage so many people with the brand.
When I listed an actual product that I was offering, many users "liked" the item -- but a like isn't a sale.
I came to the realization that I wasn't boxing up products; I wasn't making sales. Instead, I was spending time "engaging" -- and that doesn't generate revenue or pay the bills.
Simply More Communication
The downside of engagement is that as the Facebook page gets more "likes" and more "follows," I get more comments. Facebook encourages business owners to respond quickly. This means I often find myself having to stop what I'm doing -- such as working on a paid writing assignment -- to respond to someone's comment.
For a long time I saw this as necessary "networking," but with all due respect to those new followers, few ever bought anything. Many simply like to comment.
This is common among small businesses that have shared their experiences. Too often many of us feel we're offering "customer service" by responding. Yet, here is the thing. These aren't actual customers. Customers buy something. These people are just commentators.
It took a while for me to see it, but those who spent the most time "liking" my posts, my photos, and the things I had to say unfortunately were the type of people who never buy anything. Even worse, because they commented so much, they sometimes tarnished the message -- at times even debating or arguing with actual potential customers.
On a website, communication is typically one-to-one, but Facebook is a public forum. That's not the best way to engage with your customers.
Paying for Promotions
The other potential "benefit" I saw with the social network was a way to target a specific audience. Much has been written about Facebook's targeted ads, which call people to action.
When it came time to promote my latest book, A Gallery of Military Headdress, which I coauthored with Stuart Bates, it seemed that boosting a post about it from my business' Facebook page would be good investment.
For around US$20 per promotion, I could reach upwards of 10,000 users with an ad targeting a narrow audience. As my book was about eclectic military hats, helmets and other forms of headgear, I was able to focus on those with an interest in military history in specific regions.
I also followed various marketing playbooks. I first promoted the preorder for the book to build up interest. Then I offered another promotion when the book was published, followed by a few more in connection with sales or other specials to keep up momentum. In total I spent nearly $200 on Facebook promotions, and had thousands of likes, hundreds of comments, and… few sales.
The momentum from Facebook was concentrated in likes and comments -- but not sales. In fact, I sold more books directly to people at the Baltimore Antique Arms Show in March, over a single weekend, than I did in 10 Facebook promotions.
Now I fully realize I have a niche title that isn't going to be a New York Times bestseller, but it seemed that Facebook would allow me to reach a worldwide audience.
Maybe there are other factors to take into account -- such as people moving away from paper books to e-readers, but it seemed odd that so many people "liked" the book but few would pay $25 to buy it!
Going to the Groups
The promotions were just half of my marketing plan of attack. The other half was to find various interest groups on Facebook where I also promoted the book heavily. These included specific groups with esoteric interests, including one focused on "pith helmets" that had a couple of hundred members, as well as groups devoted to more general topics, such as the First World War or military history, which had thousands of members.
As part of my strategy to promote the book, I spent several hours each week finding groups and posting to them to become a part of the community. I actually enjoyed it, and I felt I was making true friends while "networking." I didn't want to "spam" these groups about my book; I wanted to highlight that I had a real interest in these topics.
When I did promote my book, I again received thousands of post "likes," and it seemed that my first print run of a modest 1,000 should sell out quickly if even a fraction of those users decided to order a copy.
Yet, as with the Facebook promotions, the sales didn't come. Instead, it seemed once again that many people just "liked" it.
That is the problem for any small business using Facebook. People like to "like" stuff. It is second nature. It is being polite -- a way to engage in a discussion. Of course Facebook encourages users to be engaged, and it made the "like" button so easy to use that it is second nature.
See a post about something and like it -- even if you don't really care.
In contrast to a "silent generation," we have created the "like era." Because I saw so many likes in my promotions during the pre-publishing phase, I actually misread the tea leaves and didn't manage expectations properly. As a result, my forecast on sales was completely off.
What's worse is that I could have directed my efforts in potentially more productive ways, such as trying to reach out to specialty book shops, and doing a more traditional PR push. I don't regret writing the book -- but I regret the decision to put so much effort into Facebook when it came to its marketing.
Alternative Ways to Target an Audience
Of course, Facebook isn't the only game in town. Major brands understand this and now utilize Instagram and more importantly "influencers" to hype products.
A small business can of course use Instagram, but let's not forget that Facebook owns the service. Millennials may follow it today, but likely will see it as passé tomorrow -- and even if they don't, Generation-Z certainly will. Social media is a moving target when it comes to what the in-crowd likes, and that makes it harder for a small business to rely on it.
Would my results have been any different with another social media service? Probably not.
Social media, especially Facebook, is a necessary evil for small business -- but this doesn't mean it should be the only means of promotion online.
A website is crucial, and I've found more customers for both my antique business and my book through the websites I've built for each. This just highlights the power of Google and search, even today.
People might not be searching for my business, but they may be searching for something I'm offering. Having a solid Web presence means they can find me via my products. That in turn has created repeat business, and customers have become clients.
Although Facebook at times is little more than a "forum" for discussion, there are actual discussion forums and boards online covering a range of subjects. I have found that these are a great place for me to promote my book to a targeted audience.
The benefit of promoting on these forums is that they also show up in Web searches, something I haven't found to be the case with Facebook promotions.
Some forums do charge membership, and some may be private, but in many cases selling a product on a forum can be free. Of course this isn't something that applies to all products. An automotive repair shop, for example, probably can't sell a product easily via an online discussion forum -- but it could advertise its services on a local classic car forum.
Moreover, for new authors especially, forums can be an invaluable tool for connecting to and building an audience. This isn't to say that this should be in lieu of a Facebook page or Facebook groups, but if you're going to devote time promoting something online, consider alternatives to social media.
The Ad Networks
Another consideration for any small business -- and one I've explored only in a limited way -- is to consider the opportunities in targeted ads on Pinterest, Snapchat, YouTube and Instagram. These can be just as targeted as Facebook, but the costs can vary.
Instagram has seen massive growth and has more than a billion active users, but much likes its parent company, this can be hit or miss. A lot depends on the product or service you are offering.
If you're not seeing a lot of similar businesses, that could mean you'll stand out -- but it also could suggest there isn't an audience. The days of pioneering on social media are long in the past.
The same holds true for Snapchat and Pinterest. Don't expect to be a marketing pioneer.
Effectively promoting a business or service could come down to getting an online influencer to spread the word. Most small businesses are unlikely to be able to afford a mainstream celebrity; there are still micro-influencers that have a reach between 5,000 and 50,000 followers.
Finding the right person who can spread the gospel may not come easily -- and it may not be cheaper, either -- but it could have a big impact.
Then there is taking it in another direction. If you already have the followers on social media and have a brand, the old-school blog and podcast can be a way to spread the word as a subject matter expert. This can be more easily said than done -- but the effort could pay off far more than just posting on Facebook and hoping the page will attract actual paying customers!