FacebookROI_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott.


The number of Facebook users worldwide now tops one billion—but is it overrated for small businesses?


The social network has been a boost for many small companies: a free patch of digital ground on the Internet to communicate with customers, draw upon for ideas or consumer insights, or to use even as a virtual storefront.


Yet it’s an elusive medium, too. Updates or contests sometimes draw little response, and few if any “Likes” or comments. For business owners managing their own account, it can be confusing or, worse, a turnoff for potential shoppers. And the return on investment—of time, energy, and resources—can be questionable, even for those lucky enough to have acquired a sizable following.


Consider Gentle Giant, a Somerville, Mass.-based moving company. It has more than 1,000 Likes on Facebook and an engaging page full of entertaining photos and snapshots of employees in action at its 20 different locations. There are numerous postings of job opportunities and regular, lively feedback from customers. Great, right?


“It would be nice to see a return on investment, but with the nature of our business and the nature of social media it doesn’t look like there will be—but it’s still important to us anyway,” says Mitch Curtis, a PR and marketing specialist for the firm. Instead, he pays more attention to sites like Yelp and Angie’s List, which have shown to be bigger drivers of traffic to the company website and contain fuller, unbridled reviews from actual customers.


But there’s an important role that those more service-oriented sites lack. Curtis says Gentle Giant is able to show its human side and internal culture on Facebook, projecting an open, trustworthy image in an industry where that is paramount. “The whole idea of moving is stressful for people,” he says. “We can illustrate that our job is to make this stress-free. Our customers put up testimonials and even our drivers send in pictures, so it’s easy to get our company culture across. With Facebook, it’s right there in your face and you can’t miss it.”


It’s that type of strategy that many small businesses sorely need, marketing experts say. Posting with a scattered approach of random images and announcements? Um, no thanks. Entries that have no call to action leave viewers with little motivation to engage.


FacebookROI_PQ.jpgAnd in recent months, engaging with clients has become even more difficult. In September 2012, Facebook adjusted the network’s algorithms in an attempt to control spam and cut down on entries from Friends or Pages that users rarely clicked. The result: Visual content and interaction is favored—and many enterprises that once regularly appeared in their fans’ News Feeds seemingly vanished, creating even more frustration for some small business users.


Jennifer Shaheen, president of White Plains, N.Y.-based Technology Therapy Group, a digital marketing agency, and a social-media instructor, says she heard from several clients after Facebook implemented the changes.


“There’s a lot of moving parts to this application and you often don’t realize it until something changes,” Shaheen says. “People tend to know the tools only to the extent that they use it individually.” She says she helps clients by focusing on tools like Google Analytics, which shows where a company website’s visitors are coming from, and Facebook Insights, which measures which features are resonating with users on their Pages.


“What you’ve got to understand is what your audience is looking for on Facebook—not just what you want to share,” Shaheen explains. “What inspires them? What makes them click over from their News Feed to your page?”


One client, Weddings in the Bahamas, had garnered about 200 fans on their own, but was struggling to get traction. As Facebook made the algorithm switch, Shaheen’s firm added weekly photo albums of ceremonies the destination-wedding planning business had arranged, as well as floral ideas, venues around the islands, and other items key to bridal shoppers. Then came contests and testimonials from past couples clients. After that, a pay-per-click advertising campaign bumped up the fans total to 2,300—and the owner reported customers saying the new Facebook page helped them seal the deal.  


“One thing we did was talk to this company and help them extract a better idea of themselves,” Shaheen says. “What do the customers say makes them buy? What resonated on Facebook? Then we build on that.”


It’s exactly that intangible—emotion—that may be the biggest key to success on Facebook. The Pages that are able to evoke a feeling—comfort, familiarity, or even education to help quell anxiety—often find a following with customers.


Internet marketing consultant Susan Nefzger confronted a social media challenge with one sensitive client, a radiation-oncology practice.


“When you’re dealing with the patient audience, especially with cancer patients, the social media has to be done in a very thoughtful, conservative, value-added way,” Nefzger says. “It’s not exactly the place to run trivia contests.”


Her three-pronged approach for the South Florida Radiation Oncology Facebook Page feed: She lists the practice’s services, classes, support groups for patients; then comes updates on research, clinical trials, and interesting, relevant cancer news from sites like The New York Times‘ Well blog; then there’s the professional and personal component, with staff photos and announcements, showing the human side of the medical team’s caregivers, as well as intermingling testimonials and blogs volunteered by patients. “It can’t be just a commercial for the company,” Nefzger says.


Since struggling with the Facebook algorithm switch, she’s enlisted the new paid Promoted Posts option and one update “went crazy:” A video of a staff doctor discussing the use of an advanced treatment tool for prostate cancer garnered more than 20,000 views.


“It blew my mind,” Nefzger says. “It increased our audience exponentially. It’s really an advantage.”


While Facebook may not deliver for all companies, small businesses have some advantages—they’re local, they’re passion-driven, there’s not a huge decision-chain, they’re relevant, and they’re personal. Those are all the elements that should add up to social media success.

“At the end of the day, people are buying from people,” Shaheen says. “If you are using that as part of your strategy, it will work pretty well. But if all you’re going to do is post your products and post your specials, then you’re not really going to see your return on investment."