In today’s super-connected, always-on era, businesses of almost any size can reach markets and customers beyond their borders with unprecedented ease. For many SMEs, the rapid growth of cross-border e-commerce – tipped to be worth USD2 trillion this year in the B2C space alone according to Bigcommerce – makes the opportunity too valuable to ignore. According to Aaron Levie, the CEO and co-founder of Box, a cloud-based online storage company in San Francisco, "A manufacturing start-up in Boston can connect with a previously impossible-to-reach supplier in China; a marketing agency in New York can instantaneously collaborate with a client in London; a services firm in France can have software developed in India."
In many respects, technology acts as the great leveler, opening up global trade that was once the exclusive preserve of large multinationals. SMEs on eBay are almost as likely to export as large businesses, according to Joshuta P. Meltzer from his book Using the Internet to Promote Services Exports by Small- and Medium-Sized Enterprises. However, the Seizing Cross-Border Opportunity by Forrester Consulting believes that SMEs still have to grapple with challenges that their larger competitors don’t face. Servicing a global customer base means overcoming problems such as time zones, and language and cultural nuances. Small businesses rarely have the time or resources to invest in outsourced customer service support, and some are finding it more efficient to serve customers via social media platforms: one LinkedIn study from 2014 revealed that 81 percent of North American SMEs use social media.
Without the large dedicated digital and social media team that many large brands have, even this can seem daunting. However, a few simple tips can generate results for SMEs that invest the necessary time and effort.
Build a following. The most finely-honed messages and beautiful content won’t have much impact if only two dozen social media "followers" ever get to see it. Companies that move into social media need to ensure that they have a sufficient base of followers for their social platforms to be an effective channel. UK-based online gaming company Betfair.com achieved this by establishing an active Twitter presence in 2009 with frequent updates on a wide variety of sports and witty, creative content that is relevant to its followers (who today number almost 120,000 people). Building a following may mean subsidiary investments – for example, in advertising. LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter all allow companies with small budgets of just a few US dollars per day to advertise through suggested posts, recommended followers and other means.
Remember, you’re the newbie! Penny Power, author of the UK’s Digital Business Britain Manifesto and founder the Digital Youth Academy, says "If you’d just moved in to a town or village, you wouldn’t open the door of your new local pub and shout that you’re a plumber or an architect and people should give you business. You’d join in with what was going on around you, chat to people and let them know what you do, so they know about you when they need your service. It’s exactly the same in social media." Existing online communities such as Facebook pages, LinkedIn communities or Twitter hashtags in the markets a company is trying to penetrate may provide the footholds it needs to build a following among customers in new markets.
This was the experience of Herschel Supply Co., a Canadian manufacturer of backpacks and outdoor goods. By taking the time to learn about each social platform, the company was far better-positioned to appeal to followers on each. "Different social networks attract different audiences," says Allison Butala, Herschel Supply’s social media manager. "Our Instagram account attracts aspiring photographers; our Pinterest following caters more towards females; Twitter attracts those interested in our product releases and news stories. Knowing this, we share relevant content and grow distinct communities."
Quality, not quantity. A few thousand followers who are genuinely won over by your offering are far more valuable than hundreds of thousands who "liked" a Facebook page simply to take part in a promotion. Build a reputation for real expertise by researching the people and issues that have the biggest influence in the markets your company is targeting. Use the tone and manner of your status updates to position your company as having the same attributes customers would value in a real person – think friendliness, approachability or a sense of humour. These steps will help your company to develop a distinctive social media "voice" and stand out from the crowd, according to The Guardian article How SMEs can make the best use of social media.
Find out what works through constant monitoring. The Guardian articles How SMEs can make the best use of social media tells us that there’s no substitute for experience, so you need to ensure you’re monitoring the results of your engagements with social media followers. A number of free tools will help you do this. For example, Socialmention.com is an online platform that provides real-time social media search and analysis. It can trawl the internet for mentions of your business or products. Tools like this quickly help you to develop a feel for what tactics work best. Christy Ng, founder of Malaysian shoe design SME Christy Ng Shoes, has two dedicated members of staff to manage the company’s presence on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. "We do all our social media management in-house – from monitoring and listening, to deciding what content will be engaging for our followers," she says. "For example, a lot of content is pictures of our products, because we know that that’s what our customers want to see."
Ultimately, social media is not an end in itself – the real yardstick of success is how much business is coming in. But by learning from the experts, making a conscious commitment to social media as a sales or customer service channel and leveraging their inherent flexibility and adaptability as small organizations, SMEs can get it right and reap the benefits.