celebrating small business week and some remarkable individuals

This week is small business week in the US.  Events have been scheduled across our nation to show appreciation for the hardworking, small business owners that represent the backbone of our local and national economies.  All this is well justified.  Besides the fact that small business accounts for over half of all private sector employment (creating 80% of all new jobs), the simple truth is that every small business in this nation is a living legacy to the American dream. 

The range of skills needed to successfully operate a small business are really quite remarkable.   Most start with an idea and little more (rarely are new small businesses sufficiently capitalized).  Owners must be creative with their allocation of resources, always doing more with less.  They must also be prepared to wear many hats :: they are the cleaning crew, the bookkeeper, the HR person, the marketing department, and the sales force,  just to name a few. 

The perseverance needed to successfully operate a small business is even more remarkable.  Small business owners fortunate enough to have employees continue working long after everyone else has punched out.   During the early stages of a company, most are the last to get paid -- if they get paid anything at all.   Most must breathe, eat, and live their business every waking hour  just to keep their companies from collapsing.

Through all these challenges, these entrepreneurs' ultimate success inspires everyone around them.   We admire these people who embrace risk and work to create something new.  So this week, think of your neighbors who are either owners or employees of small businesses.  These are the folks who pay local taxes, employ family and friends, donate their dollars and time to charity, and support other local businesses that make your community special.  Celebrate the American dream by doing your part to keep a big piece of it alive during these troubled times.

social media ROI :: our ongoing experiment

Social media platforms represent a tremendous opportunity for small and micro businesses to leverage some critical business efforts :: 1) they can help create a compelling communication of your unique value in the marketplace, 2) they can help develop meaningful connections with your customers [both potential and actual], and 3) they can expand your communications reach to a larger portion of your target audience.   Though shared by many, my beliefs on this issue are primarily driven by instinct. 

Like any good entrepreneur, I trust my instincts.  As a lawyer and a software engineer, however, I also trust in analysis and testing.  Knowing which efforts will yield the greatest results is critical to being competitive.  This is why "return on investment" (ROI) is no longer a term applied solely in the financial world.  

There are a handful of important business activities that lack specific, measurable objectives (public relations and networking quickly come to mind).  Social media is no different.   As a small or microbusiness leader, how do you determine whether your time and effort is well spent?    I decided to try and answer this question by launching a totally unplanned, "seat-of-the-pants" social media presence for my own business. 

step 1 :: warnings & disclaimers

If you've ever seen the show "Mythbusters," then you're familiar with their clever warnings about "do not try this at home."  They basically say that as trained professionals they know how to stay out of trouble.  Well, the same thing sort of applies here.

I would never advise a business to start "playing around with social media" like I have without first having some sort of a strategic communications plan in place.  Social media should always be just one piece of your overall marketing communications efforts.  If you're not choreographing what you say, how you say it, and where you say it, you stand a good chance of having your message diluted or otherwise lost in the noise.   Trust me, you don't want to have to devote time or energy to "cleaning up" the fallout from a scattered approach.  'Nuff said.

step 2 :: "investment" & expectations  

One of the attractions to performing this experiment is that it would add value to the time I was going to spend on social media platforms anyway.   I probably spend an average of 1 hour per day participating on such platforms for personal pleasure.  That's probably a good target investment for business purposes, too.  Consequently, to keep this experiment within the realm of the "real world," I have limited the "extra" time I spend on this experiment to no more than 1-2 hours per week.  

Insight # 1 :: by making a slight adjustment to activities I was already engaged in, I expected to create a positive impact upon my business.  This is called "leverage,"  and creating these kinds of opportunities for yourself is a critical skill for any small or microbusiness owner.  

With any experiment, it's important to establish some benchmark expectations.  I faced a unique challenge here.  Although we've been around for several years, Main Street Ventures was born by accident.  I started a small "main street" business with partners in 2003.  After selling that company I was asked to help guide a couple of other small businesses through a variety of challenges.  Each shared a common problem :: how to complete a wide variety of critical needs taken care of using the limited time and money at their disposal.   I started leveraging my personal resources and professional network to make a difference.  The rest (as they say) is history.  

Because we've only recently started to begin developing a vision and a brand, our social media objectives are quite modest :: while using our website and social media platforms as a virtual sandbox, I wanted to develop a core following of affiliated experts and entrepreneurs that could help us add value to the type of services we're trying to create for "main street" businesses.   Our goal :: create an inter-related communications channels that extended to no fewer than 500 people within 4 months of starting our efforts.  There's one other consideration we've tried to keep in mind, and that's "Search Engine Optimization."   Though we aren't at the point of identifying specific terms or phrases we'd like our company to be associated with, there are definitely some keywords we'd like to build our identity around.  For this reason, we've tried to be mindful of our basic positioning throughout this process without devoting a whole lot of attention or effort to true "optimization."

step 3 :: what we've done so far

Before beginning this experiment, Main Street Ventures had no presence within any social media platform.  The company maintained a home-grown blog on its website, publishing perhaps 1 new article per month.   I had a personal presence on Facebook (for social connections) and LinkedIn (for business networking).   There is minimal ovelap between my Facebook friends and my LinkedIn business connections.  One of the first things I tackled was to establish a presence for Main Street Ventures on Twitter.  Our first (and really lame) post was made on February 20th, 2009. 

Although this article is about social media ROI, I'd be committing a huge disservice if I didn't disclose that we've devoted a fair amount of attention to pulling together a strategic communications  plan since beginning this experiment.  We're still refining our work in this arena.  Because we are a boutique firm whose identity is closely associated with its principals, we began making efforts to more closely align our "personal" branding with that of the company.   Though our personal presence on social media platforms remains separate and distinct from that of Main Street Ventures, there is now more of a connection between the two.  So with this backdrop in place, here's a quick overview of how we've been spending our 7-9 hours per week on social media:

  • Created some google alerts to provide a quick source of interesting news items, blogs and other material we could scan on a daily basis.  This becomes our muse for Tweets and blog articles.
  • Committed to writing more regular blog articles (increasing average to 1 or 2 per week).  Working on developing guest blogger appearances.
  • Try to tweet relevant and interesting info no less than once per day.  Try to limit daily tweets to 4 or 5 (this is probably considered very light for most users, but I'm hoping to verify that a high "signal to noise" ratio makes a difference over the long haul).
  • Added a Twitter feed to our website (it's all about fostering connections).
  • Listed ourselves in a couple of Twitter directories that are in beta.
  • Added a Facebook page for our company (probably not the best use of our resources, but we'll probably experiment some more with this over time).
  • Moved our blog off of our proprietary platform to WordPress.com  We'll eventually need to adjust the domain name (so the reflected URL is mainstreetventures.com), but felt the platform move was more critical at this time (this opened up our ability to start listing / promoting blog through sites such as Technorati, etc.)
  • Started using some nifty tools out there to "measure" differences in our exposure over time (grader and twitalyzer are 2 we like.  Neither necessarily paints the "truth," but they at least measure some relevant data points that allow you to better analyze some degree of "cause and effect.")

how we're doing

We're just over 2 months into this experiment.  Without really "working" it, we've enhanced the visibility of our overall web presence significantly (based on search engine queries and results from various analysis tools).   Surprisingly, the company has organically acquired about 70 Twitter followers, the vast majority of whom are entirely new connections for us.  I suspect we could have a significantly higher  "following" if we searched out and started following other users, but I prefer to see where this approach takes us for now. 

On average, about 15-20% of our Twitter followers click on links contained within our Tweets.  This suggests a good start for actual engagement.  We need to work some more on building the quality of our conversations and relationships from these efforts, but overall I'm pleasantly surprised by what we've accomplished given the "seat-of-the-pants" nature of this experiment.  It remains to be seen how the relationships we're building translate into enhanced capabilities or new revenue opportunities, but I consider this is a "long-tail" effort whose real value is not always going to be immediately identifiable.

Though results remain difficult to quantify, this little experiment has provided me with enough data points to comfortably continue trusting my instincts.   Perhaps in time we'll engage in a more measured approach from the outset, such as the one described by Tim Ferriss in his recent blog post.

What insights have you gained on the ROI of social media activities for your business?  We'd love to hear...

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