The decision also made financial sense. Bespoke websites can cost thousands of pounds, so should small businesses abandon them to save time and money? Or does this strategy only work for certain niche industries?
Of course, you don’t have to spend a fortune on a website. Free tools like content management system WordPress and hosting service Weebly can help. But they may require investments in additional plug-ins or support. Because social sites like Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter are easy to use, free and update automatically there’s an opportunity for SMEs to save money on development and become more efficient.
andSoMe’s staff spend less than an hour per day maintaining its social media presence (it has more than 2,000 followers on Twitter and 242 Facebook page likes). The move has also helped avoid formulaic trends in website design caused by the increasing use of mobile, says Rice.
However, while this approach may reduce costs, the functionality offered by social media platforms may not be enough for the majority of small businesses, particularly those that need to offer e-commerce, and websites can be important for establishing respectability.
Julie Hawker, chief executive of Cosmic, a not-for-profit organisation that provides small businesses with IT support and advice, says it’s crucial to consider the return on time invested.
“There are certain types of businesses that can progress well and excel in their use of social media and are able to convert interest into sales. There are others where the anchoring and the core nuggets of content [on websites] are still vitally important,” she advises.
Facebook: a starting platform
Entrepreneurs that have made a conscious decision to shift their online focus to social media while maintaining a website have found it a time-effective way to build an audience.
In its first incarnation Crafty Days Keep Sakes, which creates toys from old children’s clothes, relied on Facebook to make sales and an online Google document to book orders and maintain a waiting list.
The business relaunched as Love Keep Create at the start of 2013, hiring staff, rebranding and investing in a website. However, the social focus remained and a third of website traffic was generated by Facebook during this new phase. Today its Facebook page has over 39,000 likes.
“Small businesses can’t afford to ignore social media,” says company director Nelly Whitaker. “Our particular business and our products work well on Facebook because it’s something people really engage with. The emotional attachment is really high.”
Creating a customer community
Love Keep Create’s social content centres on product photos shared by customers and the staff, and baby-related articles. Whitaker says maintaining its social channels takes 15-20 hours per week. However, this often involves dealing with sales made through direct messages, which would have otherwise have been handled by email.
Twitter is widely used by small businesses to target specialist markets and promote products. The micro-blogging network started trialling an embedded buy button in the US in September. The UK launch date hasn’t been announced yet, however, the development offers an insight into how social media functionality will be improved in the future.
Helen Lawson, co-founder of recently launched bereavement retail business Inspired Goodbyes, says Twitter is the company’s core method of reaching its client base. Lawson estimates she invests an hour to an hour and a half in social media per day. This has included contacting attendees of an industry conference called the Ideal Death Show before the event to ensure their stand had a buzz and managing to set up a meeting with the Queen’s undertaker.
Online sports nutrition and bodybuilding supplement retailer SNCDirect switched its focus to social media to address disappointing website traffic. “It’s becoming more of an important part of our marketing mix. People in our industry rely on recommendations. That’s where social works very well,” says marketing manager Tom Bourlet.
Twitter and Pinterest have provided the biggest response in terms of generating traffic and conversions (SNCDirect has 20,000 followers on Twitter and 210 on Pinterest, and 1,600 Facebook likes). This meant investing in content that could be shared easily, such as workout routines like the 30-day squat challenge, which are posted as images, rather than writing content for the website. Bourlet says the change of focus led social referrals to move from 0.3% to 25.0% of site traffic in less than a year.
However, while these platforms can provide opportunities to be more efficient, small businesses still need to ensure that time invested is used productively. Hawker warns it’s difficult for SMEs to accurately measure the ROI from social media: “Can you identify a sale has taken place and track it back to social media not as the only reasons, but as one of the major elements in that? At the moment, we don’t have anywhere near the sort of sophistication we need around measuring ROI specifically on social media. Some business can invest hugely in doing this, but the majority of our clients [who are SMEs] definitely couldn’t.”
Crucially, while social media is free and offers a great way to market a business, the functionality of these sites is limited and that is the biggest drawback.
“I wouldn’t say it is right for all business, certain businesses need to have a traditional web presence because that’s the market they’re in. If you want to make a statement about yourself and the kind of business you want to attract, social could do that for you without losing anything you would get from a regular website,” says Rice.
Even if you’re going to reduce the development spend on a traditional website to invest more time in social media, rather than dropping it altogether, there’s an opportunity to save time and money. This payback is increasing as these networks become more embedded in customers’ buying habits and the move has paid dividends for businesses like Love Keep Create and SNCDirect.