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Many small to medium sized business have trouble competing with “The Big Guy”. Often times small firms that begin to show potential are swiftly bought out by industry giants, while others struggle to compete based on economies of scale. It is truly a David vs. Goliath world our there for us entrepreneurs and small businesses. One of the hardest levels for small businesses to compete on with the large enterprises is advertising. While major companies such as Coca-Cola and Apple spend millions of dollars monthly on advertising, the little guys can often barely afford more than business cards and a website. While David overcame Goliath with his sling and stone, small businesses have a secret weapon of their own – Social Media. That’s right – those free social networking sites have value in them for businesses too! Most Social Media sites like Facebook and Twitter are free of charge and allow small businesses to reach their desired audience in a creative and effective fashion.

Where to start?

Start off by securing your company name on the major Social Media sites – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc. By doing so you are protecting and building your brand. The last thing you want is somebody out there to snag your brand name up on YouTube and start posing inappropriate videos that are not aligned with the image that you wish to convey – trust me, it happens. Protecting and building your brand online is one of the most important, and difficult tasks to accomplish when using Social Media. Remember – completing these tasks are often free, but extremely valuable to the well-being of your brand.

Engage your Fans

Okay, so…by now you’re (hopefully) all set up on Facebook, Twitter, etc. But now what? Don’t just sit back…do something! If used properly, Social Media can do wonders for your customer base, loyalty and reputation. If nothing else, remember this – don’t pitch them, don’t sell them – this will insult them. They didn’t log onto to Facebook and visit your Page to be bombarded with ads, they did so because they like your brand and are interested in you. Avoid be annoying and don’t change their mind. Instead engage them in conversations. Ask for their opinion. What would they like to see your business offer? Encourage them to interact with you by offering incentives. Examples of this can be seen through my work with Bishop’s University.

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with next year’s Orientation Week coordinators. One of the main events in Orientation Week every year is the concert. Since their budget is somewhat low, finding an exciting, yet affordable band that the incoming students will enjoy is a difficult task. So as the coordinators browsed the internet and iTunes looking up bands, I took a different approach.  I decided to go right to the customer – our incoming students.

Within the first few hours we had dozens of responses. After a week, we had received over 50 suggestions form incoming students. Needless to say it worked on more levels that one. First of all, I easily obtained numerous suggestion of bands and artists that this year’s incoming class would like to see. And secondly, I successfully engaged our fans, and made them feel as if their opinion mattered.

Your Customers are Your Best Marketers

Who do you trust more? An ad on TV, or a recommendation for a product from family and friends. Obviously the latter, right? That’s why Social Media is so amazing. It allows people you know to tell you what they think about a company, it’s products and services or an experience they had with the brand. This can make or break your company. Sure, as a company you can brag about yourself. You can tell people that you have the highest quality product with great service, and so on. But really, who is going to truly believe you. Your Fans will believe each other though. I witnessed a great example of this last week.

One of the local student bars in Lennoxville was holding their always popular annual customer appreciation night where they offer food and beers at extremely reduced prices. Needless to say, they place was packed. Some friends and I decided to go check it out. We sat at our table for almost an hour, and were not seen once by a bartender or waitress. The place was extremely understaffed, and many customers never got served. You could actually feel the frustration building in the place. My group, along with many others, angrily left. The next day I logged onto Facebook and checked out the bar’s Fan Page. Their wall was littered with angry and frustrated messages from unsatisfied customers about the horrible service the night before. Who holds a customer appreciation night that infuriates their customers? This event obviously did not bode well for them, and all of their Fans (even those who didn’t attend the event) knew about it.

Offer Incentives

Having trouble getting your Fans to engage with you? Offer incentives! Many companies have begun doing this in order to drive traffic on their Social Media sites – and it works! Recently at Bishop’s we encouraged our fans to post short videos telling us “one thing” that they love about Bishop’s. After about a week, we only had 3 responses. So we sat down and brainstormed how to get this project off the ground. The answer? Incentives. We decided that the creators of the best videos posted would a trip to one of 6 Canadian cities (Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto and Vancouver) to tell their “One Thing” to incoming students at a recruitment reception. We ended up receiving numerous quality and entertaining videos that helped show prospective students why they should consider Bishop’s. This project turned out to be a great success. We got real content from real students by offering incentives to our Fans.

So even if you’re a small business, feeling helpless against the “giants” in your industy, take some comfort in knowing that you can compete, and beat them, using you secret weapon – Social Media.

How can your small business use Social Media to compete against the “Big Guys”?