Considering all the hype around social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and the legions of small business owners who are marketing via those sites, you might think everyone is on board the social media train. 

But a new survey shows that close to 60 per cent of small businesses still don't have a Facebook page.

Telecom firm AT&T conducted a survey recently, focusing on firms with two to 50 employees. The response from participants shows that 41 per cent of small businesses do have Facebook accounts. Now mind you, that's up from 27 per cent when AT&T did the same survey last year, so that's a significant jump.   

So entrepreneurs are signing on quickly. Not surprising, given all the buzz around social media, and that registering with Facebook and Twitter is FREE.  Of course cost-conscious entrepreneurs are eager to participate in a type of marketing that is both hot and inexpensive.

But another striking result from AT&T's survey is that  41 per cent of participants say they've seen "measurable success" with their efforts on Facebook.  Hmmmmm — that means close to 60 per cent haven't seen measurable success!

So what makes the difference?

"It depends on the type of organization," says online marketing strategist Michael Williams. "It's best for companies that are dealing with consumers, not other businesses. Also, organizations that are concerned about negative reputation may want to stay away from Facebook, only because it's a lot easier to spread negative items on the internet than it is positive news." 

Williams says his e-marketing advice helped one client boost sales by close to 100 per cent — but he also says it's essential social media is managed carefully.

"Are you going to have a top level CEO who wants to share their vision speak to people via Facebook? Or will you have someone lower down who's been hired as a social media co-ordinator do the messaging? It's difficult to make sure brand consistency is maintained if it's not top down."

(His observation reminds me that earlier this month, Chrysler fired a young man who'd been the company's "voice" on Twitter. This person apparently mixed up his personal account with the Chysler one, and posted "I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the Motor City and yet no one here knows how to  f***ing drive." Not only was he fired, so was the agency that was managing Chysler's social media.)

Williams points to the controversy that hit The Learning Channel's Facebook page for the program Sister Wives.  People opposed to the polygamist lifestyle featured on the reality show inundated the site with negative comments.   And he has another example of Facebook spreading "bad" news. 

"I'm a fan of the Big Mac,"  says Williams, "and I went to the Facebook site on St. Patrick's Day, and saw that McDonald's was offering a special McFlurry for the day — but I also saw comments such as 'stop making me fat!'"

It also makes sense that companies that are typically targeted for poor customer service may not benefit from offering up a social media venue for public complaints.  I saw a recent research paper suggesting that insurance companies may not be a good fit for social media, simply because rightly or wrongly, plenty of customers aren't happy with their experience.

But then you hear Facebook success stories like Lindsay Goertzen's. This young Kelowna-based entrepreneur runs Aura Beauty, a company that offers a "mobile spa" experience, and attributes 100 per cent of the attendance at her events to Facebook. "We started our business a year ago because I had four nieces and my sister-in-law all wanting spa services, and I could never get us all into a space at the same time," explains Goertzen. "I started the business with my brother because I thought other people would have the same problem. No number is too great for us."

Aura Beauty hires aestheticians as independent contractors, and brings in the team for a variety of fund-raising events for groups such as The Salvation Army, the Alzheimer Society, and the Red Cross (next month they're holding an event to raise money for victims of the earthquake in Japan).

Goertzen says she too has received a few negative comments via Facebook. 

"People can send you good and bad feedback, and you have to be prepared for everyone to see it.  But that's OK with us.  We want to hear it so we can be better."

She offers the following three tips to small companies wanting to leverage social media:

  1. Be yourself!  People want personality.  That's what will draw them back — interacting with someone who is fun and interesting. Always be professional.  
  2. Be consistent — it takes a lot of time to be successful with Social Media — respond to people who post and make sure you are doing a consistent number of posts using different things like pictures, videos, etc. Don't bombard people. Too much and people will "unlike" your page. 
  3. Have a Plan — what is the purpose of your Facebook page? Is it to advertise specials, give information, promote yourself? Plan what you are going to put on your page and the amount of time you are going to spend — you can get carried away!

I like Goertzen's tips — although I have to point that in my experience, being "fun and interesting" comes more naturally to some than others. For some people, being "themselves" could mean being cranky and boring! That's why social media services are booming right now — although many small businesses likely can't afford to contract an outside specialist, like Chrysler did (for all the good it did them!).

Even so, I have no doubt AT&T 's survey results next year will report even more growth among companies using Facebook.  How many are actually happy with the result will depend on how much effort is put into figuring out the best way to harness the power of social media.