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Many of you know my parents had a fabric and drapery business, and it was often the topic of conversation around the dinner table. I remember my dad saying, more than once, “the customer is always right.”

As a young teenager, I took that literally and would often get into arguments with my dad trying to prove how impossible that was. But I was missing the point. For him, it wasn’t an absolute. It was more about serving customers by looking at the world through their eyes and never being too pushy about the sell.

Social Media Marketing for Small Business

I’ve been thinking about my dad’s approach to retail a lot lately because I just created a course for the online training site, Lynda.com, on how small businesses can use social media for marketing. It’s also available on LinkedIn Learning.

Doing social media can be tough on entrepreneurs because they know it’s important, yet are often strapped for staff, resources, and time. Not to mention building the business.

So I took a step back and reflected on the way my dad ran his store for over 45 years to see what could be applied to social media marketing for small businesses. Here are three tips:

Social media is a conversation, not a pitch
When people entered my dad’s store, he never said, “Can I help you?” He knew the answer would be, “No thanks, I’m just looking.” And then customers would rush out. Instead, he just said a friendly hello, observed them and, when he sensed they were comfortable struck up a conversation.

Stories begin with the customer
Content was a big thing for my dad, though he never would have called it that. The fabric business is all about imagination, seeing a bolt of cloth and visualizing the finished product and you’d look in it. My dad was an expert at inspiring customers by presenting the elements they needed to bring their stories to life.

Analytics count
I remember being in a mall with my dad and remarking on how successful it was because it was so busy. My dad glanced around and said he didn’t think the store owners would say that. What he noticed was how few people there were carrying shopping bags. For my dad, those bags were a measure of success because they meant sale plus word of mouth promotion.

And here’s some advice from me:

Social media is always on – even when you’re not
That’s hard when you’ve got a small staff and no extra time. Accept that you can’t be everywhere and pick the channels you know your customers are using to showcase your brand personality. Just be sure your customers want to interact with you there!

Social media is not a solo activity
You may only have one or two employees, so get to know what their passions are beyond your business. Maybe one is really into video or photography and can create visuals your business can share. Just be realistic about people’s time and give them a chance to set up a personal/professional divide.

Social media is fast, relationships take time
And one dumb, but public, misstep can undo years of customer relations before your eyes. No matter how small you are, craft a simple, straightforward social media policy and communicate it clearly to your staff.

Social media marketing can seem daunting and adds another layer of work onto an already stressed staff. But if you make smart choices, integrate it with your traditional channels, don’t try to do everything and always think about your customers, you’ll be counting your shopping bags in no time.

How do you use social media to market your small business?

A version of this post was originally published in Marketing magazine.

About Martin Waxman


Martin Waxman conducts social media and online crisis training workshops, is a digital and communications strategist and speaks at events across North America. He's the co-founder of three PR agencies, president of a consultancy and has worked in the industry for 25 years. He writes a monthly column for Marketing Magazine, teaches digital strategy and is chair of PRSA Counselors Academy.

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