Note: This post was originally published in Bplans.
Having a worldwide audience at your fingertips is great, but if a social media platform is the gatekeeper of your contact list, do you really own that information? I would argue no.
I understand why social media marketing is attractive to small businesses. You can set up a Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter page for free and instantly access nearly 3 billion people. It’s simpler than setting up your business’s first website. For a small business trying to build an online presence, gaining hundreds of likes and followers early on can be exciting.
Maintaining an upward trajectory on social media, however, is more challenging. Facebook’s algorithm for de-emphasizing commercial content means that unless you pay to boost your posts, they won’t always reach your audience. Even if you temporarily beat the algorithm, the platform has way more resources dedicated to outrunning you.
This makes it much more difficult (or even impossible) to sustain that early growth. As social media platforms continue to grow in popularity, the advertising and business space becomes more competitive, and you’ll be less likely to receive free traffic.
Case in point: A 2018 Search Engine Journal poll found 37 percent of businesses reported much lower Facebook traffic than the previous year. Today’s platforms change their algorithms and update their advertising rules frequently, meaning an ad that performed well last year—or even last week—might not be up to snuff now.
Most social platforms are optimized for engagement only within that platform. That’s at odds with what you want for your small business. Likes, follows, and comments aren’t the same as eyes on your website, newsletter sign-ups, and qualified leads. Basically, social media success translates less and less into real value for your company.
The gatekeeper trap
Not getting what you expected out of a free platform is disappointing, but alone, all you lost is time and effort. You can recover from that. The real trouble comes when Facebook is your main (or only) channel for reaching your audience. As I already mentioned, you don’t really own your data if you’ve made Facebook—or really any social media platform—its gatekeeper.
With Facebook, you have no control over the algorithms and rules that make that audience data useful. In fact, as platforms grow more crowded, it’s not uncommon for them to make it harder for you to reach followers. You have to shift strategies quickly to stop your marketing efforts from growing stale, and the platform’s main goal is to limit your organic reach so it can monetize your traffic immediately.
Plus, social media leads are not nearly as qualified as leads from other sources. It doesn’t take much effort to click “Like,” so engagement on the platform doesn’t really equate to real interest. While 84 percent of social marketers track and measure social media effectiveness against existing goals, nearly 30 percent still have trouble proving its value.
In fact, you don’t even control the layout or presentation of your social media pages, so you have few opportunities to stand out from other business pages. Temporary snapshots of your business gain more traction than any overall picture of your company’s activities and value.
Most importantly, your business’s activity benefits other businesses, too. Amazon, for instance, can copy and out-promote a well-performing product from one of the 6 million sellers on its Marketplace platform, running small companies out of business. Similarly, Facebook offers up your free and paid-for audiences (and all their data) for other similar businesses to target. You pay for advertising, then these sites use your activity and that of your followers to make even more money.
4 ways to gain back control
I’m not saying you should forgo social media marketing. On the contrary, when used properly, it can be a highly valuable asset to your overall marketing strategy. The trap springs when you use social media—a channel you don’t own—as your sole means of reaching your audience.
With word-of-mouth and email marketing—emails you capture through your own website, you not only eliminate any gatekeepers to your audience data, but you also build a reputation that lasts longer and means more than a social media following. Emails can be exported and imported into different systems, so you don’t have to worry about a single platform holding your data hostage.
The bottom line is that you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket, especially if you’re not the one holding the basket.
Instead, reach a broad audience while protecting your data by following these four tips:
1. Claim ownership of your data
I can’t stress this enough: It’s essential to go through every marketing platform and channel you use to determine if you’re the data’s sole owner.
- Does the platform hold the rights to all published or profile data?
- Can other people access your data without your permission?
- Can your data be sold to other people and used in direct competition of your business?
Clear up any ambiguity as soon as possible, and if necessary, switch or leave any platform that claims ownership of your data. At the very least, limit the use of the platform and ensure that you have a separate contact list for your followers on it. Make sure you’re building your own wealth, not just that of the platform you’re using.
2. Prioritize emails and phone numbers
You can’t take followers, views, and likes to the bank, but you can take phone numbers and email addresses with you no matter what system you’re using. In addition to never losing your contacts, you can utilize this information for more effective digital marketing channels, such as email, that convert into solid leads and higher return on investment than social media.
You can prioritize this information by including a short call to action on all your social media posts and ads for readers to sign up for an email newsletter. Instead of curating these leads on Facebook or other platforms, incorporate the data into an email or customer relationship management program. You can then reach them via more personalized channels and easily add any other data points you collect.
3. Do your own market research
In many cases, word-of-mouth and email marketing are way better methods of reaching your audience than social media or direct mail. However, that isn’t always true for every business. Do your own market research. The data and metrics provided by social media and other advertising platforms may be misleading.
Within a CRM platform, you can track exactly which marketing channels brought in which leads, the conversion rate for each channel, and which channel has the highest ROI. If you actually own your audience data, you have the means to use it to effectively direct every arm of your marketing strategy.
4. Don’t erase your social presence entirely
As you conduct your own research, you may find that your business can benefit from social media advertising. If so, keep the strategy ethical, set reasonable goals for the social media page, and don’t rely on it as your main source of leads or audience contact. Rather than erase your social media presence, just use it more strategically.
For example, if your goal is to appear credible rather than gain new leads, dedicate a few hours every month to social media upkeep. Update the page with new posts, publish fresh content routinely, feed reviews to your Facebook page, and respond promptly to comments and direct messages. Use your presence as an engagement tool rather than a lead-generation one.
The instant gratification of seeing your business’s social media presence blossom can be encouraging, but don’t be fooled. If you don’t own your data, you’re at the mercy of the platform that does—and you’ll be out of luck if it pulls a fast one. Own your audience data by eliminating the gatekeepers, and take control of your business.