Why small business needs to get smart about social media

Small businesses have fallen behind the curve when it comes to social media, but new research shows exactly why it should be a vital component of a company’s strategy.

Every business, no matter how big or small, should have an online presence, including social media accounts, according to Westpac’s general manager of small business Julie Rynski.

Newly-released research from the bank shows that just 35 per cent of small business owners maintain a social media presence, and the majority of those are under the age of 44.

“People are really scared and overwhelmed by it,” she says.

“I think when it started it was just Facebook and people thought ‘alright, I might dip my toe in and test the water’ but now we’ve got Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all of those sorts of things. When we look at our feedback and research it seems to be all a bit too scary.”

The message from the experts is clear -- family businesses overlooking social media will be left behind.

Particularly surprising is just how nascent small business’ online awareness is: while 97.3 per cent of big businesses maintain an online presence, only 32.2 per cent of small businesses do.

A recent report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics backs up the Westpac findings, showing Australian businesses earned a record $246.6 billion from internet sales in 2012-13.

What's more, the number of businesses receiving orders online rose to 30.2 per cent.

But the number of small businesses embracing the web for sales and marketing remains low.

“We’re in a global environment. If you’re not on the internet how are you going to get your presence out there? It’s about having a website, and it doesn’t have to be big and fancy, but something that tells people about your business,” says Rynski.

While social media tends not to facilitate sales directly, Julie Rynski and other experts encourage businesses to use it as a tool to communicate with customers and grow brand awareness.

Young entrepreneurs and start-ups are the ones making use of social media. It’s the primary tool for communicating with customers for 41 per cent of business owners under the age of 44. In doing this, they’re shunning traditional and expensive advertising and marketing techniques.

And according to the data, it’s these owners who are most confident about their business’ future activity.

“According to the results of the index, twice as many businesses who use social media said they expect an improvement in activity in the next three months, compared with those small businesses that don’t use social media,” says Rynski.

“What we’re seeing is the older family members tend to stay away from social media but where there are younger members of the family, they’re the ones taking the business on the journey -- they take charge of the social media aspect.”

That’s something that Rynski says would be smart to embrace.

One family business that’s grabbed social media with both hands is Blue Mountains tourist attraction Scenic World, led by brother and sister joint managing directors David and Anthea Hammon (grandchildren of the founder).

“We realised the strongest recommendations about where to go on holidays come from your friends… and Facebook is a shortcut to your friends. That’s the crux of it for us,” says David.

Scenic World hired a social media specialist to maintain the sites, which have grown to rival theme park giants like DreamWorld and Movie World.

The family-owned tourist attraction now has just under 550,000 Facebook ‘likes’ and a healthy Twitter, Instagram and YouTube following.

They went even further after seeing the success the business had with Chinese tourists and the company ventured into China’s most-used social media platform Weibo. It now has over 36,000 followers, making it the most liked attraction in Australia.

And while Scenic World fits in with the Westpac findings -- almost all the management team are younger than 44 -- David says the philosophy of using social media to engage with customers and encourage recommendations can work in all businesses.

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