Today, I spoke to Jason Keith, who is the senior communications manager at Vistaprint and runs the small business blog at Boston.com. In this interview, Jason talks about how social media can waste a small businesses time, tips for companies who want to build a brand in this bad economy, and much more.
You say on your blog that social media might be a waste of time for SMB’s. How does a small business best manage their time on social networks?
The best way for a small business to manage their time on social networks is to know exactly what they are getting into ahead of time. Do your homework, research it and if possible talk to others about what their experiences have been like.
Social media is one of the most time intensive marketing platforms you can get into, and once you’re in, it’s difficult to get out. The commitment that it takes could be overwhelming, if a business is successful in recruiting and fostering an engaged community. You can think of social media as a garden; you work very hard to plant the seeds, water it and get it to grow, but once it does the work isn’t finished. You need to actively weed to ensure that it’s not overtaken. And the bigger your garden, the more you have to weed.
If in the beginning you’re spending an hour a week on social media, as you build it up that could grow to two, three, four hours a week. The most important thing for small businesses to consider is the growth potential. How much more time will you need if you have 5,000 fans versus a 1,000? Try and come up with a long term plan that will allow you to scale without getting overwhelmed. Time is what it takes to have success in social media. If you don’t have it, then think twice about getting into it.
What are your top three tips for small businesses that are looking to build a brand during this economy?
There’s a lot of noise out there and one of the most difficult things for small businesses to do is to stand out. But as I’ve said in the past, small businesses have an advantage that big businesses don’t have: personality. So my three tips for building a brand would be:
- Stay consistent: if you’ve worked hard to come up with a custom logo, marketing tagline or specific messaging in your marketing materials, make sure you’re always using it, reinforcing it and not changing it. Too often small businesses don’t keep the same image and that can hurt with consumers in terms of brand recognition. When they see you once, they should know what you’re all about and hopefully remember you.
- Go the extra mile: As I said, small businesses have the advantage of getting to know their customers and forging a relationship with the ones you have is paramount to not only sustaining your business, but generating more. Ask how their day is going, what you can do to help them or if they might need anything else. That extra little interaction can make all the difference and give you a customer for life versus one for a month.
- Encourage referrals: I’ve said many times that word of mouth marketing is the best way for small businesses to get off the ground and to start building their base. If you’ve got people talking about you, it’s the cheapest and quickest way to build awareness. But you can also encourage referrals by giving your best customers a reason to pass you along, like discounts for them and the referred customer. Incentivize them to pass your business along; you’d be surprised how active people will be for you. And of course, my second tip always helps with my third.
Who are some of the entrepreneurs that you most admire?
I think it’s too easy to rattle off names like Mark Cuban and Richard Branson. Yes those guys should be admired for their success, no doubt. But the entrepreneurs who I admire the most are the ones that I know personally and are friends with. For example, I have very close friends who own a law firm, a plumbing business and even a Dunkin Donuts franchise. They are the hardest working people I know, they have to make decisions daily that will alter the health of their business and they live and die with every converted or lost customer. Some have employees they have to think about and protect, while a few are one man operations. To me, those are the entrepreneurs that should be admired. They haven’t made millions like some of the “well known” guys, but they are no less important to the overall economy. They’re also everyday people who work hard to get your business, because in many cases they are supporting their families and just trying to earn a good living, like the rest of us.
Are entrepreneurs born or made? This question has been going around forever and I’d like to get your take on it.
I personally think they are made over time. I’ve seen a number of entrepreneurs that are products of their environment growing up and how they saw their parents approach life and business. Typically family owned businesses foster either more family ownership, or another business that’s spawned and run by that family. But oftentimes they just get sick of working for someone else and decide to go out on their own.
I think all small business owners have to have certain characteristics: drive, tenacity, creativity and attention to detail to name just a few. Their lives are essentially their business, so every detail surrounding it becomes important. Some people have suggested that entrepreneurs need to be near obsessed to succeed, but I really think that all small business owners have a passion to succeed and be their own boss. That’s what drives them and that’s what fuels their success. Theoretically speaking anyone could be an entrepreneur, the question is do you want it badly enough? For most people the answer is no.
What elements make a small business more successful than the next?
This is a difficult question to answer because each business is different and I’ve seen businesses that had good people running them fail. Sometimes it just happens. It’s hard to put your finger on a number of elements that will allow you to succeed because the numbers don’t lie; nearly 600,000 small businesses close every year, while just over 600,000 start. But I think that there are a few things that will always help.
- The first is hard work; I’ve never seen a successful small business owner that didn’t work hard, oftentimes seven days a week. So if you’re afraid of hard work, don’t bother trying to start your own small business. You’re doomed from the start.
- The second is to have a good plan in place. It’s often said that in life we’re more likely to do the things that we write down, because they’re concrete and on paper. So even if it’s a loose business plan, a projection for where you want your business to be in five years, or how you plan on getting your first ten customers, have a goal and write down what steps you’re going to take to get there. Planning for even small things is better than having no plan at all.
- The last thing, and it might sound corny, is to take some risks. That’s another benefit that small businesses have over bigger competitors, they can often “afford” to take some risks and make some decisions that bigger companies can’t. When you see and opportunity try to get as much information as you can, discuss it with your inner circle (and even those outside your inner circle) and decide if it’s worth it. You very rarely hear a successful small business say, “I wish I hadn’t passed up on X.” More often than not the successful business identifies its opportunity and pounces when they are presented. That can often be the difference between success and failure. And with any small business, it’s usually a razor thin line.
Jason Keith is the senior communications manager at Vistaprint, where he and his team are deeply involved with small businesses and lead the efforts in mining micro business trends, behaviors, and attitudes through various research studies and analysis. A former journalist with more than a decade of experience in the communications field, he has also spent time working for a number of small businesses in New England, giving him a unique perspective of the issues facing them on a daily basis. Read his new small business blog at Boston.com. To reach him directly email firstname.lastname@example.org.