Small Business Gets Social

Looking for practical applications of social technology in business? Talk to your hair stylist. The brands you’ve heard of – Starbucks, Pepsi, Coke, eBay, and more – make for great headlines. They also provide solid case studies and show the kind of spirit for risk-taking and innovation that offers a way forward for many others. But with larger budgets and more complex challenges, the things that they do on the social Web aren’t necessarily the blueprints for everyone else.

As it turns out, savvy applications of social media are closer and more plentiful than you might think. I was reading Matt McGee’s “Small Business Search Marketing” column recently. Matt pointed to an eMarketer study on the use of social media in building business: compared with the use of social media by big and mid-sized brands, of whom 28 percent and 36 percent, respectively, reported using social media for customer acquisition, an impressive 44 percent of the small businesses surveyed reported using social media to attract new customers.

What are these small, forward-thinking businesses doing? Everything. The Raue Center for the Performing Arts used its Facebook business page to quickly close a funding gap by appealing to patrons and new donors: the majority of those who donated as a result of the Facebook-based appeal were over 55 years old! Kite and wakeboard manufacturer Slingshot increased its own visibility through a MySpace and Facebook collaborative graphics design program launched on the rider-built wakeboarding community Wakesites. The program was implemented using a social application built by Friend2Friend. [Disclosure: I ride a Slingshot wakeboard and am on the Advisory Boards of both Wakesites and Friend2Friend.] When Virgil Simmons, founder of, wanted to reach African-American males – who are disproportionately affected by prostate cancer – with important information about early detection and treatment, he used a combination of podcasting and an outreach program that began in barber shops. [Disclosure: I am cofounder of, the podcasting firm that helped produce the outreach series.]

These smaller businesses are doing all of the things you read about in the big-brand case studies, and building their own business as a result. What’s the secret to getting social media “right” in small business? It’s actually no secret at all: it’s the tried and true combination of clear business objectives, a solid understanding of the audience, and business leadership that is willing to take calculated risks and then see the effort through to success.

One of the most striking examples is the social media presence and overall use of technology by Avant Salon in Austin, TX. As a personal friend of Avant co-founder Roy Fredericks, I’ve watched as this multi-location business has built itself over the past 20 years – it’s now one of the largest and most consistently profitable salons in the area, through the smart use of technology.

The original owner of the domain “” – Avant sold the domain to the online magazine Salon – the leadership team is committed to a business-focused application of technology, including social media. Avant’s online presence include a website, online booking, an effective e-mail marketing strategy, and all of the associated functions you’d expect from a contemporary business. It also includes social media-based marketing.

Avant’s social presence includes a Facebook page, Twitter channel, and mobile applications for the iPhone and iPad available through iTunes. Each of these channels is used for a specific purpose: Twitter is outbound. Avant uses Twitter to let customers know about upcoming charity events, promotions, and similar news. Facebook is Avant’s primary social presence point, and the iPad application gives customers and their friends a way to look through Avant’s extensive online portfolio of its own award-winning hairstyles. Salon Today’s Stacey Soble published an in-depth review of Avant, and the online magazine has also produced a multi-part series on the use of technology by hair salons.

The next time you find yourself looking for inspiration and ideas for your social media programs, talk to a small business owner. Whether it’s a theater performance, enjoyment of an action sport, or just getting your hair done, there are insights and practical examples of the social Web at work all around you.

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