Small businesses, social media and market research: a re-think is needed

You will have noted that it’s been some time since I posted within this category.  This is because my activities to work with small businesses to see how they could use social media to gain customer feedback have produced learning points – but not necessarily those anticipated.

All but one of these businesses never found the time and motivation do do anything.  One got as far as putting a link to a short survey on their Facebook page.  This gained a disappointing and unusable number of responses.  There has been no further action thereafter.

The approach I’ve taken so far appears to involve pushing water up a rather steep hill.  So I’ve been wondering why.  My tentative conclusions are:

Most small businesses that are using social media (and, doubtless, quite a few large ones) are treating it as a cheap broadcast channel and are not really achieving much of a connection with their followers.  So, rather than spend a certain amount of money on paid for advertising, and never really knowing if this has been wasted or not, they are spending time using social media – and not knowing whether this is a waste, or not.  They tend not to have meaningful social media objectives e.g. making connections and achieving interactivity.

Given this, it is probably necessary to offer an incentive when running a survey, or asking followers to provide information in some other way.  Otherwise they are too passive.  The business that failed to get enough survey responses was also running competitions to win a product that were attracting over 1,000 entries.

More fundamentally, do the management of small businesses really value information on customers’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviours?  As a researcher you rather assume that anyone would, given the opportunity.  But such managers have been taking their business decisions for years with little or no structured market information (plenty of anecdotal and informal stuff, though).  Perhaps they are like older people and the internet e.g. ‘I’ve got this far quite happily without (whatever) – why should I change the way I’ve been doing things because something new fangled has come along?’

To the extent that this is true, it poses a tricky challenge.  How do you persuade people to change their behaviour when they can see nothing wrong with their current situation and the benefits of the change (you will be able to take higher quality decisions) is rather abstract, to say the least.

In truth, it’s not quite this black and white.  Conversations I’ve had indicate that they do accept that better information would be a vaguely ‘good thing’, but the perceived benefit is neither strong enough nor real enough to cause them to commit to action when there are so many more urgent things to be addressed.

Further mulling is required!

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