By Janet Garcia, director, MindLeaders

The global debate may be around austerity versus investment in growth, but small businesses are having to make this choice all the time at the moment. A year or so ago, many small businesses may have decided to batten down the hatches and see out the storm, but there comes a point where some kind of investment, however small, can help stimulate interest and subsequently sales.

However, ambitious and often expensive advertising or marketing campaigns are probably not the right route at the moment. Local, more targeted marketing campaigns focusing on one geographic region or vertical sector may be a more sensible option, but can still be a case of more miss than hit as only a fraction of overall spend will reach a core target prospect. When budgets are tight, firms can’t afford to throw money at a marketing scheme in the hope that something sticks.

For example, a photographer may decide to invest in an email campaign advertising a special offer. If they use a database of past customers how many are likely to have another major event pending where they need the services? The same will apply if the photographer focuses on one particular region. They may get some kind of return on their efforts, but they are not optimising their budget.

And how do they introduce their services to new customers? A specific magazine focusing on a niche market such as new parents may be the answer, but then taking space in national titles is expensive, not to mention the cost of artwork. Besides, conventional ads are static and an offer will seem stale after a while; no longer special but slightly desperate, taking value and prestige away from the product. In addition, there is no easy way for customers to give feedback to help tailor what is being offered.

The answer lies with the increasing use of social media. Many small businesses are already dipping their toes in by establishing a Facebook Page for their business – enough, in fact, for some business commentators to question whether company websites are no longer the first point of contact for many potential customers.

Yet, a recent study by Recommend.ly found that 82% of company and brand pages post less than five updates a month. A Facebook Page may be free, but it does need to be regularly fed with news and relevant content to establish a fan base and keep a brand name front of mind. There’s nothing worse than visiting a page to find the last entry was 18 months ago and a neglected page does nothing for a firm’s reputation as a dynamic forward-thinking business.

Facebook has around 30 million users in the UK, so for most businesses this will include current and potential customers. Importantly, it enables businesses to ‘drill down’ to their prime market, by age, interests, location or status. So our photographer could pinpoint new parents in their own area, devise an interesting special offer to provide incentive to act and wait for the response reassured by the knowledge that they hadn’t wasted budget on unlikely candidates. If this works, they may want to investigate other possibilities such as Sponsored Stories or interactive advertisements linked to a friend’s ‘likes’ or recommendations.

In a recent real-life case, an Irish hotel demonstrated the potential to earn over three-quarters of a million euros in just 24-hours after an offer was claimed by around 27,000 people. Unfortunately, the hotel wasn’t large enough to accommodate everyone who wanted to take up the offer, but its success does illustrate the power of advertising this way. If an ad or offer is attractive enough, others will do the work by recommending it to their friends and distribution becomes viral.

Opportunities such as this do not happen very often for small businesses. However, one of the reasons more are not taking advantage is lack of time to either try by trial and error or to take a course to learn how to optimise their Facebook presence. There are no lack of courses around, but it’s difficult to know how to choose the right one.

The good news is that there is no need to invest a fortune in learning how to do this. E-learning courses that are divided into small chunks can fit around a busy working schedule and are available for not much more than a few sandwiches and double espresso lunches.

Look for one that has been developed in co-operation with Facebook as training courses without this support can soon become out of date.

There are not many courses where return on investment promises to be so rapid and so significant.

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