Social Media Is Tailor-Made for SMBs

What do a paint company, a wakeboard manufacturer, and an audio technology firm have in common? They’re doing smart things with social media based marketing. In this column, I want to focus on the efforts of America’s backbone: small to medium-sized businesses, or SMBs.

Referencing a post I recently came across, it’s clear that there’s more interest on the part of SMBs than might be otherwise thought. It turns out that, given their slightly smaller size, increased agility, and closer working contact between founders/c-level, managers, and customers, many of these firms have quickly adopted social media based marketing as a part of their overall go-to-market plans.

Because social media and the larger social Web provide a platform for innovative marketing and product development — and in general deliver this at a modest relative cost — this extension to marketing is ideal for SMBs.

Social Shopping: Benjamin Moore

Take a look at Benjamin Moore, a long-lived paints and coatings company now owned by Berkshire Hathaway. While large by SMB standards, the franchise stores it operates are classic SMBs. The challenge for these purveyors of interior paint and related products, beyond providing great paint, is creating relevance and being present at the point where decisions about paint and paint color are actually made. Sometimes this is at home, but it can also be in a restaurant, museum, or some other setting where “Just the color I was looking for!” is suddenly spotted.

Benjamin Moore tapped the combination of the iPhone and the likelihood of friends being present when picking a color, when it created and launched its paint color application. See a color that you or your friends like? Scan it and match it to a Benjamin Moore color. Shopping for accessories? Pull up the colors on your iPhone and match them. Jeff Jarvis calls this “taking it to your audience.” Rather than requiring its customers to bring color ideas into its stores, Benjamin Moore has delivered its colors at the point where customers are making decisions. Even further, it put this information into its customer’s hands in what are often social settings, such as shopping with a friend when that right color is encountered.

Social Product Design: Wakesites

How about collaborative product design? Wakeboard manufacturer Slingshot Sports put a program together built around the Wakesites online community and ProductPulse, a Facebook product sharing and voting application. (As a disclosure, I am associated with both Wakesites and ProductPulse.) The great thing about this program from the perspective of Slingshot was that, not only did it get some great design ideas for its 2010 board line, its products also picked 350,000 views by actively engaged wake enthusiasts on Facebook.

Often the most challenging aspects of collaborative design programs aren’t the logistics or costs, but rather the mental shift required to give your customers this type of control. While more along the lines of “But of course we’re smarter than the King.” Collaborative design means walking the talk: it means honoring the customer sufficiently so that they feel heard.

One of the first steps in moving toward collaborative design is understanding what your customers think about you. I had a thought as I was sitting on a Continental flight getting ready to leave the other day: on Continental, as the cabin is being readied for take off, CEO Larry Kellner talks about the company programs on the video monitors while the flight attendants stand at the heads of the aisles. The interesting part is, they’re looking directly at a couple of hundred customers, often making eye contact, as the CEO describes what the airline should feel like to its customers.

The flight attendants can probably see in real time the degree to which its customers believe what they’re hearing and the degree to which they’re even listening. It’s a tough exercise: when was the last time you stood in front of 200 customers and watched them react to a pitch about your firm? Try it.

Embracing collaborative design brings your firm to the level of interaction and mutual trust required to truly engage your customers. Collaborative design isn’t a trivial undertaking, but at the same time, it isn’t necessarily an expensive proposition. The real work is in aligning your teams internally and creating the type of culture that accepts and responds genuinely to its customers, and thereby benefits the business in the context of the larger marketplace intelligence and loyalty earned.

Social Loyalty: Skullcandy

Finally, an easy follow: Skullcandy, makers of what are arguably the coolest headsets and earbuds on the planet, has recently pushed into India. What was the initial beachhead? Twitter, of course. Notified by colleague and industrial designer Nithin David of Skullcandy India’s Twitter presence, I enthusiastically jumped in.

I’ve been a proud Skullcandy owner for some time. I own the “Full Metal Jacket” earbuds and talk about them a lot. They really are indestructible, and the warranty backs this up. Beyond the standard full replacement for defects, Skullcandy offers its “aggressive listening” replacement option. If your set gets destroyed in use — say, for example, it’s ripped off your head by a helicopter blade as you attempt a movie stunt — the company will replace it at half-cost. This is the kind of thing that gets people talking, and Skullcandy has used this to its advantage to get the word out. With a bit of creative thought, you could be doing the same.

Wrapping this up, for SMBs, the social Web offers a great platform to engage your customers, facilitate their conversations, and the opportunity to ride the resulting wave at a cost that you’ll appreciate. Is there work involved? You bet. The good news is, for the most part, it’s what you’d be doing anyway to build a strong business.

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