I was honoured to be asked to speak at today’s Social Media Belfast conference, held annually in the Baby Grand Opera House by Agenda NI - Northern Ireland’s Business and Public Policy magazine.
I was in the second panel of speakers, following my favourite tea brand Suki Tea and speaking ahead of the Social Media Manager of Queen’s University. Esteemed company alright!
This was my first time attending the event and it was really good, specifically because it brought together speakers from a variety of industries and skill sets to talk succinctly on a range of business digital areas, including tonnes of good examples.
I thought I’d post my slides and notes below for those who couldn’t be there to watch me wing it after a week of nasty sickness (i.e. very little practice time!)
Social for Small Business and Blogging
We didn’t have to stick too strictly to the title we were given, which I was grateful for because I always think it’s difficult at these things to bring something new to the discussion.
I knew I wanted to talk about some really good examples I had of Irish social media usage and small business blogging, but I wanted an interesting angle around it. So I turned, as I so often do, to my geeky history roots…
As a history buff, one of the many places I always visit when looking for relevant content ideas is “This Day In History.”
Today, the 7th September, has seen some fairly notable events over the years:
- In 1911, Guillaume is arrested for stealing the Mona Lisa.
- In 1936 one of my Dad’s favourites, Buddy Holly was born.
- In 1940, the Blitz of WWII began.
- In 1996, the shooting of Tupac Shakur.
But the one that really stood out for me was that on this day in 1813*, the United States got its famous nickname “Uncle Sam.”
*Or at least that is the date that was formerly recognised by the US congress in 1961.
We all work with brands and small businesses who dream of one day becoming a household name, like the famous image of the white-beared man in the stars and stripes top hat telling the public “I Want You.”
It is so synonymous with America and with their cultural ideals that it has been mimicked too many times to count.
It has also been replicated as a short-hand branding tactic with the kind of notoriety must Marketers can only dream of creating for clients.
What really intrigues me about the back-story to this is that the name Uncle Sam has become famous at the cost of the actual company involved in the initial events that sparked it.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Samuel Wilson was a meat-packer from New York who supplied barrels of beef to the United States Army during the war of 1812.
Wilson stamped his barrels of beef with “U.S.” for United States, but soldiers began calling the deliveries “Uncle Sam’s.” The local newspaper picked up the story and Uncle Sam eventually became widespread shorthand for the US federal government.
Of course that was just the name. It would be some 100-odd years later when artist James Montgomery Flagg would popularise the iconic image of Uncle Sam in the army recruitment poster which first appeared on another form of media - in the magazine Leslie’s Weekly, in 1916.
This got me thinking about brand communications. People will often cite examples like the “Uncle Sam” imagery as proof that digital and social channels haven’t helped modern businesses, that it has always been possible (even before the internet) for small businesses to make a big splash.
Some will even claim that digital has hindered modern marketing. That they’ve bombarded us with messages, muddied the waters and just put pressure on small businesses to be seen everyone, spending all their budgets on modern media, with little-to-no return.
However, the real story behind Uncle Sam shows us how easy it was a Century ago, for small business communications to lose their message in the passage of media coverage, word of mouth and old-fashioned storytelling.
So when we’re asking ourselves “what is the value of social and digital media for small businesses” perhaps it’s useful to look back to what life was like without it, and how we can best use the benefits it now provides.
Keeping with the old American theme - and because I’m a history buff anyway - we’ll stick with that time period…
We tend to think of the small business and startup scene as a new-fangled thing.
In fact, that’s far from the truth.
George Washington, one of the founding fathers of his country, was also an active investor in startups - from canals to a distillery.
And some of Washington’s peers were beyond their time when it came to harnessing the power of media and technology, too.
In an era when wealth was usually bestowed by birth, earned via a good marriage, or worked up through agriculture, Benjamin Franklin was able to craft an integrated network of urban businesses using a strategy that seems as “21st century” as any modern internet startup.
Benjamin Franklin made his fortune in media - a bit like an 18th Century version of Arianna Huffington.
He did so by creating vertically integrated media and distribution businesses in which he had ownership of the creation, production and distribution of news and entertainment media, or what we today would call, “content.”
Much of his writing was published in “Poor Richard’s Almanac” - which was basically the Buzzfeed of its era.
To keep his own newspaper, “the Pennsylvania Gazette”, interesting to readers, he was even known to write under pseudonyms to literally debate with himself.
Franklin was a great blogger, over 200 years before blogs were even invented!
In his biography of Benjamin, Walter Isaacson referred to him as “the country’s first unabashed public relations expert.” Because he also understood the importance of personal branding in building his business:
His inventive mind afforded him the ability to help meet the needs of his customers (i.e. the newspaper readers). He knew, for example, that far-sightedness made reading difficult for ageing eyes, so he created bifocals.
As well as understanding personal branding, content and audience needs, Franklin also mastered distribution. Historians have noted for example that his role as Postmaster of Philadelphia also helped him increase the circulation of his very own newspaper.
And more than anyone in his day, Franklin would have known how to fully harness a platform like the internet.
He understood the part global communications could play in business success, in his role representing the fledgling United States to France and the rest of the world.
So it’s clear from these examples that there have always been innovative startups ideas, successful business people to implement them and natural marketers with the understanding and drive to take their message global.
Social and digital media has simply given their modern counterparts (us) the ability to own our brand communications, no longer relying on media and word of mouth to share it, thus reducing the risk of losing our message along the way.
Like poor Samuel Wilson did.
The challenges of mastering digital are common knowledge: having the resources to manage the plethora of channels, the technical skill to run them and finding the creativity to publish content that resonates with existing and new audiences.
The solutions to those challenges are well-documented, too.
Find the channels where your customers are.
Don’t spread yourself too thin.
Make the effort to create good content.
Make it a conversation, a user-generated curation and a customer service tool - not just a broadcasting one-way stream.
But I always find the best way to learn is to look at best practice.
I think its unhelpful when we’re told to learn from big brands, established companies with big budgets or media-loved startups with lots of customer content, or even just organisations that have a Marketing team with the time and skill to do the job justice.
That is not the reality of most small businesses trying to break into social and digital media.
We don’t have many star examples like here in Ireland, but the ones we do have are rivalling many of the big dog case studies we’re used to hearing about.
Take the small coffee shop in Newry growing an audience of thousands on Facebook thanks to their humorous self deprecating posts and the regular Live broadcast pieces by Ms McCooey herself.
Don’t tell me that you can’t make a wee shop in the back of a parking lot successful online.
Drive just a bit up the road and you’ll find a hair salon probably not known outside their loyal Newry, except on Snapchat, where Scissor Sister are one of the most well-known and often copied beauty channels incorporating style how-to’s, beauty Q&As and behind the scenes make-up tutorials.
Don’t tell me you can’t do more with content than post client photos on Facebook.
Come back to the big smoke of Belfast and you’ll find a law firm basically running the local business scene on Twitter, thanks to the creative eye and initiative of a Finance Manager, no less. Edwards & Co are the driving force behind the regional Twitter networking chat #Belfasthour
Don’t tell me your business is too boring to get noticed online.
Even over on Instagram, one of the hardest channels to crack for non-visual and small businesses, there are examples of entrepreneurs thinking outside the box to grow massive audiences. Like the “Doors of Dublin” account which sits just shy of 20,000 followers. Started by Writer Eleanor Costello who, in lieu of any visual products of her own, went out and used someone else’s.
Don’t tell me you need more resources than the smartphone in your hand to build something online.
As for blogging, well it lags a bit further behind other digital channels, precisely because it takes a little bit more of everything - more technical skill, more writing skill, more resources, like time.
However, as a blogger myself - and as someone who only had the luxury of building my own business because of the great Marketing job blogging had done for my personal brand - I wish more small businesses would see the value to be gained from the effort inputted.
I can talk about the SEO benefits and the social media sharing benefits and the downright bottom line benefits until I’m blue in the face. But I will still be met with excuses.
- Like my business doesn’t have time to blog (tell that to Mick’s Garage, a guy who started a business, and a blog, from his bedroom).
- Or my business is too boring to blog (tell that to Badgemaking.ie who are currently shortlisted in the Irish Blog Awards).
- Or my business wouldn’t have much to say (tell that to Pet Sitters Ireland, who are also shortlisted).
You may not have heard of these businesses, but that’s probably because you’re not their target audience. Rest assured however that this content will be found when specific questions are searched and locations are sought on Google or on the social channels the posts are shared and debated on.
Or when the content is highly targeted through social media ads. Or through word of mouth from one user to another, keen to share useful content in the psychologically-driven way we are as social creatures.
Without this kind of personality-laden, peer-endorsed content, you are just another unknown, untrustworthy, name in a search results page.
And you’re probably pretty far down the search results list, too.
So again I say to you when people ask “what is the value of social and digital for small businesses?”
Ask them instead what they lose, or fail to gain, without it.
And tell them to get with the programme, they’re about 225 years too late! #Franklin