Why small businesses, social media and customer research may make difficult bedfellows

My apologies for the peace and quiet that has reigned here in recent months.  This is partly because a lot of stuff has been happening elsewhere, and partly because of a lack of progress in running social media research with small businesses.  Even for free.  Which is what I thought I’d write about.

So why have I been unable to persuade small businesses I know to experiment with using social media to obtain information about, and from, their customers?

Well, let’s turn a blind eye to the ‘I’ factor, and assume it’s something else!

My current thinking is that there are six obvious factors, and three less obvious ones.  The obvious factors are:

  • A lack of time to think about and initiate new activity that does not have an obvious, tangible payout.
  • Which is exacerbated by a lack of clarity about the payout.  The benefit is, or should be, better decisions that lead to more profitable activity.  But this is difficult to foresee, especially if there is little experience of carrying out research.
  • Low scale and ineffective social media marketing activity, which means businesses have low numbers of followers with low levels of engagement.
  • Uncertainty about how to implement social media research.
  • Uncertainty about what questions to pose – and a lack of time to work these out.
  • On the few occasions that all these barriers are overcome, a lack of useful response.

This list indicates why the recent level of activity has been, err, inactive.

But, it could be argued, any new activity has to overcome barriers of lack of knowledge, lack of time and uncertainty about implementation and benefits.  And the benefits of free feedback from customers shouldn’t be that obscure or opaque.  So is there anything else going on here?  I suspect there might be.

I’ve been struck by the difficulty that I’ve experienced in trying to generate any real interest in the concept of ‘free information from customers’.  Mental light bulbs have not been illuminated and hearts have not been set a beating.  I can think of three more underlying factors.

The first is that the role and value of social media to many small businesses is far from proven.  Using social media effectively requires time, interesting things to say, and a degree of specialist knowledge.  Many small businesses lack all three.  In addition the customer bases of many small businesses are not that engaged with social media themselves.

The second is that decision taking in many small businesses is relatively straightforward, mainly using a mix of experience and intuition.  Complicated analysis is not involved, and so large amounts of data are not required.  Customers’ preferences and views are only one aspect of what needs to be considered.  I have noticed that small business decision takers can find it difficult to answer the question ‘what is the one thing that you would most like to know more about, in relation to your customers?’

Finally, and linked to the last factor, there may be a lack of intrinsic curiosity about what customers know, don’t know, understand, do, and are bothered about.  They are what they are, and they either buy stuff or they don’t.  Obtaining information on all of this for its own sake is not seen as a valuable or interesting thing to do.

So, reviewing the above, it is perhaps not so surprising that not much has been happening.  Unfortunately it also implies that not a lot is likely to happen within this particular thread in the foreseeable future.  But as and when I make contact with a small business that is actively engaging with a sizeable customer base and which wants to use this to find out more, you’ll be among the first to know!

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