OPINION | Businesses ignore social media at their peril

Social media has created what some call the 'golden age of complaining,' and Dan Misener looks at what this means for businesses.

According to David-Michel Davies, we live in a "golden age of complaining." Davies, who is the executive director of Webby Awards, attributes this to social media.

"You've never had a larger soapbox to stand on top of and a more hyper-connected community to complain to," Davies was recently quoted as saying. From Twitter, to Facebook, to Yelp and TripAdvisor, there's never been a better time to be a disgruntled customer.

As part of CBC's Small Business Week coverage, I wanted to find out what this golden age of complaining means for Canadian small businesses, so I called up Montreal-based digital marketer Mitch Joel.

Joel says it's important for small businesses to make sure their approach to social media is proactive, rather than reactive. "A proactive approach is governed by a strategy," Joel told me.

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Don't go sign up for a Twitter account just because everyone else is doing it. "That's not a great reason, business-wise, to be on Twitter. You've got to be there because you have the why, not the what. Why means 'Why should I be on Twitter? Why should I be on Facebook? Why should I be responding to TripAdvisor?'"

This is particularly important for small businesses, where time and resources are at a premium. "If you're a small business owner, you're chief cook and bottle washer," Joel says. "Time is money."

So then, how should small businesses decide what social media tools to use, and where to spend their time? Part of the decision should be based on where your customers are, and where new customers might be. In other words, fish where the fish are.

Another part of the decision-making process should involve choosing the right tools for the job. If people need to see your product or service, focus on tools that allow you to share video or photos. If your business relies on word-of-mouth and recommendations, pay attention to platforms that focus on those types of sharing. Yelp and TripAdvisor are good examples.

The goal, Joel says, is to choose tools that help tell the story of your business. "What I push to small businesses is this idea of building what I call a brand narrative. Telling a better story about the brand. These platforms are available to anybody — text, images, audio and video — you can publish instantly to the world for free. There are great stories that small businesses have that can't be parlayed in a great ad or a great press release. That's what these platforms allow you to do. Tell the stories. Share the stories."

Small businesses are, by definition, small. Most often, they're made up of real live human beings with faces and names. Conveniently, social media is about real live human beings with faces and names. Small businesses can use this to their advantage.

But what happens when small businesses have to respond to complaints through social media? What happens if I'm running a small business and people start bad-mouthing me online?

If you ask me, the ostrich approach of sticking your head in the sand is simply not an option. Small businesses need to address customer issues and participate online with the same care and attention they would in any other context.

Social media chat

Social media can be a powerful tool for small business owners when it comes to communicating with customers and creating buzz around products and services. But as many business owners will tell you, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks shouldn't be undertaken lightly.

To help you navigate the ups and downs of using social media for small business, organized a live chat with some trusty experts — small business owners like yourselves — with experience using social media.

I asked Mitch Joel about this, and he thinks the so-called "golden age of complaining" is a good thing. He sees these online complaints as an opportunity for discourse. "Ultimately, the better brands are beholden to those complaints and they're taking action. The brands that aren't are paying the price or suffering for it. So if the net output of that is brands are now held to a higher standard ... good."

Good for customers. But perhaps more work for businesses.

"Small business plays a critical function within the community that it serves," Joel says. "Part of the reason small businesses maintain that level of success is actually their openness and transparency. And if they take that spirit and run it in the online channels, I think they'd have a much easier time."

If you run a small business, the odds are that nobody knows your customers as well as you do. So when you're thinking about what tools to use, or how much time and attention to put into social media, I think it's important to — at least every once in a while — take off your small business *owner* hat, and put on your small business customer hat.

Ask yourself: Where do I go to get recommendations? How do I make decisions about the companies I deal with? When I have a good experience, or a bad experience, how do I tell people about it?

There are online conversations happening about you and your business, whether you're a part of those conversations or not.

Personally, I know which kind of business I prefer to deal with.