Sterling Tire has had a loyal clientele since it first opened in Keswick, Ont., in 1978. To attract a new generation of customers to the wheel and tire sales and service shop, co-owner Josh Stevens decided he needed to jump on the social media bandwagon.
So a year and half ago, he set up a Facebook page. In the ensuing months, it garnered just 78 "likes," mostly from family and friends, as well as the odd comment and query.
Busy, and with no personal interest in social media, Mr. Stevens stopped using a marketing and communication tool that didn't seem to be doing anything to help his business. "It took focus away from the day-to-day operations of the company," says Mr. Stevens of the family-run business.
Despite all the hype about the importance of social media, many small- and medium-sized businesses are still not on board. Nearly two-thirds – 65 per cent – don't use social media tools at all, found a recent Bank of Montreal survey.
And guess what: Some marketing experts say they are, in fact, making the right move. Tools such as Facebook and Twitter may not be smart at all for businesses such as Sterling Tire that can do better with other, more traditional ways of interacting with existing and potential customers, these contrarians say.
Marc Gordon, owner of Toronto-based Fourword Marketing, is one of them. His message to many clients: Disregard the popular misconception that every business has to have a presence in the social media universe.
"I believe that some small businesses should absolutely not participate in social media," he says.
"If they're not communicating effectively or not portraying themselves the proper way, or can't, doing so could negatively impact the way their potential and current customers view and interact with them. Doing so could actually harm their brand," Mr. Gordon says.
"Many consultants say, 'If you're not on Facebook, you don't exist," he adds. They use "fear" as a sales tool, he says, and many companies believe them because they don't understand the social media universe, and whether their business will, or will not, benefit from being there.
Harvir Bansal, an associate professor at the Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Centre at the University of Waterloo, echoes Mr. Gordon's view that companies shouldn't assume they must have a social media presence to serve their customer base.
"[Many businesses] feel the need to play in there because other companies are there," says Dr. Bansal, who specializes in entrepreneurship and technology. "I don't think that should be the driving force. You have to figure out who your customers are, and if there's any value to engaging them in social media."
Mr. Gordon says that a good half of his clients are not, and should not, be on social media. While he says that social media can help some companies interact with their customers, he believes businesses overestimate the extent to which this needs to happen, particularly on platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.
"For businesses that create engagement by sharing ideas, dealing with criticism, and providing customer support, social media can be very useful," he says. But this begs the question: Do your customers really want to engage with you?
"My experience as a marketer has shown me that in many industries, while customers [and] clients…might want you to be accessible, it doesn't mean they want to follow you, like you, be your friend, or join your e-mail list. They just want to know you'll be there when they need you."
So who is better off ignoring likes and tweets?
For one, Mr. Gordon says, if the marketplace you deal with isn't using social media, there's no point in being there. Many business-to-business companies or those serving niche markets will find that "motivating factors to buying decisions have nothing to do with how you're perceived on social media," he says.
Mr. Gordon also says that many small business owners have neither the time nor resources to effectively devote to social media. Those who are too busy often neglect them, failing to follow through with regular updates and answers to customer queries and comments so that they don't keep a fresh and constant presence.
"First and foremost, the business owner has to be onboard," he says. "It's something you have to commit to. For most business owners, there just aren't enough hours in the day."
Studies have shown, Mr. Gordon says, that to have an effective long-term social media campaign requires at least an hour a day to create content – and more hours to deal with feedback and richer content.
"To update Facebook, maintain a Twitter feed, post to Pinterest, that is a huge investment timewise, and many business people don't have the time to manage a social media campaign, in addition to wearing all the other hats" at their business, he says.
Money is also an issue. While it's free and easy to set up many accounts, hiring someone in house or on contract, or bringing in consultants to create and keep a social media campaign going takes resources many small businesses don't have, Mr. Gordon says.
Another factor: being able to keep up the corporate image. "Lacking experience or technical skills, they are not able to carry the corporate identity through to the social media effort," he says. "If they create a Facebook or Twitter account, do they have the ability to carry that messaging into their social? Most small business owners don't know how to do it."
Comfort is also a consideration, he says. Because many small business owners are often the face of their company, he says, it is crucial that they communicate in the way they feel most comfortable.
"If it is easier or more comfortable for you to sit across from somebody at a coffee shop or pick up a phone, rather than use social media," that's the way to go, he says. "For a lot of people, posting on Facebook or Twitter is just not comfortable; they can't convey their message in 140 characters and find it more effective to shake hands, have a coffee, face to face."
Even if they hire others to handle their social media, Dr. Bansal says an owner must still invest some time to take part in the conversations.
"It's okay to have outside help, but you need to monitor that," he says. "You can't be hands off. It defeats the whole purpose. At the end of the day, you want to interact with your customers. You want the dialogue to be genuine and coming from you."
Mr. Gordon also argues that, for some businesses, more traditional methods can often be more effective in interacting with existing and potential customers.
Sterling Tire is a case in point, he says. After Mr. Gordon's limp response to his Facebook page, Mr. Gordon crafted a marketing plan for the company that eschewed an online presence beyond a website in favour of in-person contact with thousands of potential local customers.
Last June, for example, the company sponsored a local outdoor community event, which included a car show featuring more than 200 custom-made vehicles. "In the space of an afternoon, [Mr. Stevens] came face-to-face with 2,000 to 3,000 people," Mr. Gordon says. "He couldn't do this on Facebook. The car shows are a targeted approach that has him meeting potential customers in his own community."
It suited Mr. Stevens better, too, he says. "I like interacting this way," he says. "It's like you're talking in your neighbour's garage."
There is so much emphasis on how social media creates new opportunities to interact with customers, Dr. Bansal says, that people can forget that interaction with customers has always been a key ingredient of a successful business.
Especially for small businesses serving local markets, "you don't have to be on the Web to be social. You can manage relationships with customers outside of the social media space," he says.
"The mom and pop stores that really did well in the 'olden times' knew their customers," he adds. "When they came into the shop, they knew them by name. That's social interaction. It's not simply transactional."
Mr. Stevens' business does have a website, and Sterling Tire collects e-mail addresses for direct-marketing initiatives. But even there, Mr. Stevens wants to project an image of a personable, family business; the Web site does this with pictures and bios of everyone who works there.
Mr. Stevens gains this exposure with no significant time investment. Mr. Gordon says it's better for a business such as Mr. Stevens' to ignore social media than harm its reputation by using the tools improperly.
"It's like a business in a building that needs a new coat of paint," he says. "It looks unkempt, neglected. It makes you wonder, 'Are the lights on? Is anyone there?'"
For his part, Mr. Stevens has given up on social media. Dr. Bansal says he is making the right choice.
"I don't see the value," he says. "You have a customer base. You know these customers. You don't need a Facebook page and to ask people to 'like' you to serve these customers well."
Should you be on social media?
Here are some of the factors that might make the decision to stay off, according to Marc Gordon, owner of Toronto-based Fourword Marketing.
1. Is your marketplace using social media?
Consider whether your own customers are actively on social media, and will be looking for your business there. Many companies, especially business-to-business or in niche markets, will not be.
2. Do you have the time?
It takes at least an hour a day to run an effective social media campaign – and more hours to handle feedback and richer content. Do you have the time to devote to it?
3. Do you have the money?
Even though it can be free to set up an account, it costs to hire someone in-house or on contract to create, assemble and keep a social media campaign running.
4. Can you maintain the corporate image?
It takes experience and technical skills to be able to create and carry the corporate identity through an entire social media campaign and content; many small business owners don't have them.
5. Is it the most comfortable way for you to interact?
Many small business owners are more comfortable with face-to-face interactions. What is your most comfortable, and therefore most effective, mode of communication?