Warning: If you do not own a business and have no interest in ever doing so, this post was not written for you. You’re welcome to stay and read on if you’re curious, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
A couple weeks ago, we walked away from our social media accounts and published a blog post explaining the factors in that decision. I won’t rehash all the reasons here, but I will say that we received hundreds of supportive notes, emails, and messages for the decision. It seems there are many people out there who are wary of the personal and social effects of these platforms.
One of the most surprising things in all the feedback was the request from other business owners for advice about how to survive as a business without the use of social media. I promised to share my thoughts here, but before I do, two caveats: 1. I am no marketing expert. I’ve never spent any significant amount of time reading about marketing strategies. All of my thoughts are the result of my experience running two businesses: a furniture restoration shop in my small town and Mortise & Tenon. Marketing professionals are much more experienced than me, but they also have a program to sell you. So take my words for what they’re worth. 2. It would be a lie to tell you social media cannot increase sales – it can. There is a reason companies of all stripes invest serious time and resources into these platforms. They don’t do it just because it’s fun.
Those caveats aside, if you are a business owner who would like to feed your family without depending on Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey, I hope my thoughts here may be helpful to you.
The Downsides of Using Social Media
The way conventional marketing dogma goes, social media is a game-changer. By simply uploading a photo once in a while and replying to commenters, you will see your sales explode beyond your wildest dreams. The truth is, there are few people in the world who would deny social media is a major time-suck. Fielding questions, keeping up on the latest gossip, and surfing around for other accounts to interact with is exhausting.
The second issue at play is that there was a time in the early days of social media that the platforms were relatively open and democratic. You could find people doing cool things without algorithms controlling your experience. The harsh reality is that those days are now gone. Now, businesses are badgered to “boost” their posts ($$$) so that all their followers can see what they’re putting out there. Just because you have 80,000 followers doesn’t mean 80,000 people get to see what you’re posting – you have to pay for that privilege. And it can add up quick. M&T has never been willing to play that game, and as a result only a few thousand people ever saw what we posted. So, don’t let the follower count deceive you – broad social media exposure is not free, nor is it democratic.
The third issue to point out is that social media companies control all your content published on the platform. Remember MySpace? Remember all the time people invested there trying to reach others? What happened to all that effort? It’s stuck in MySpace, inaccessible to anyone else. This is the same with other social platforms. Nothing I’ve ever posted on Instagram will show up in search engine results. It’s all stuck there, doing no one any good. The day Instagram goes the way of MySpace (yes, it will happen) all that content is flushed down the tubes. I would much rather invest in building content on my own website, which can be accessed through any search engine.
Finally, the dirty secret in marketing is that social media is the least effective method for generating sales. The traffic analytics in our store are hilarious. Somehow all we invested in Instagram activity over the years resulted in nothing more than a trickle of folks coming over from the app. Sales are not everything, but if you’re considering how to keep food on the table, social media will not bring home the bacon.
In summary, social media can be effective if you play by the rules and pay up. But if you aren’t one to stand in line, there are alternative paths.
Another Way of Doing Business
Every business is different, so it is hard to come up with one perfect way forward for everyone but let me sketch for you one alternative path in order to get your juices flowing as you consider your own business.
- First and foremost, invest serious time, sweat, and tears making an amazing product. This is so obvious that it pains me to say it, but somehow not everyone thinks this is important. Mass-produced junk is the standard these days, and the only hope of selling it seems to be marketing shenanigans. Focus on making a product that no buyer will regret purchasing.
- Now your goal is to share your amazing product as clearly as possible. The best way is always to get it in people’s hands. Short of that, you have to use all the media you can to reproduce that experience for them. Full descriptions, clear photography, video clips, whatever it takes for your prospective customer to feel like they know who you are, what you make, and that it is an investment worth making. This sharing should be multi-pronged, and should be implemented in this order of importance:
- You need to have an excellent website. No, not one your brother-in-law can make for you for free. It’s got to be a serious, functional, and legit website that can make your customers feel like they walked into your storefront or workshop and shook your hand. Excellent websites are made up of beautiful photography and compelling and informative copy. If you can’t write to save your life or don’t know more than iPhone point-and-shoot, these are the two skills you need to be cultivating.
- Work to grow an email list for sharing regular updates. Every honest marketing resource will tell you that even in the year 2021, the email list is head and shoulders above in sales conversion. Social media is not even in the same ballpark. As an aside, never buy email lists (I’m not making this up… it happens all the time) because that’s a shady practice. You won’t be able to sleep at night anymore and your customer base will eventually be repelled by that kind of business move. Only send emails to those who signed up for it.
- Maintain a blog. This is a powerful way to share with your customers and to interact with them. You will be able to develop relationships with the most active commenters, and will be able to provide blog content they will be interested in. And remember, every single word you type on your blog can be found by search engines. Don’t overlook this tool.
- Miscellaneous. Diversify your content with videos (behind-the-scenes and tutorials), a podcast, etc. There are a lot of ways to share with your customers. Use as many methods as you can sustainably maintain.
I make no pretensions to be an expert at marketing. My strategy from day one has been: make a cool magazine and share it with folks who might also think it’s cool. I’ve simply trusted that if I do a good job with it, and continue to deliver quality work, customers will keep coming back. So far, it’s worked.
After a year of half-hearted social media posting, business has never been better. We are growing all the time and we’ve been thinking hard about how we could extricate ourselves completely from Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Dorsey. Our plan is essentially as listed above. We are hopeful about the coming years.
I would genuinely like to know your thoughts and experience on this topic. Other readers would too. What other ways do you think businesses can cut the ties to social media and still survive?