By Colin Bradshaw, Professor of Management Practice at the University of Bedfordshire Business School

There has been a lot of media coverage about the how social media can help business create effective dialogue with their customers and moreover help those businesses to grow. Some commentators have begun to question the value of social media and whether it is really effective for businesses. Professor Mark Ritson presents a very elegant and well supported argument as to why social media is a waste of time for most marketers stating that traditional advertising approaches are much more effective. You can see Mark’s conference presentation here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2NUayn2vP0

Professor Ritson presents a very compelling analysis of the data and the facts are clear.

In terms of reach and engagement traditional advertising drives a better result for your business than social media will.

This however has two flaws in my view. Firstly your business might not be able to afford to advertise and secondly if it can, will it be able to engage audiences on an on-going basis? Social media is not a universal panacea and is not right for all businesses but used in a smart and well applied way it can be hugely effective.

Let us consider three examples; a small business serving a well-defined local area, a small business serving a national or potentially international customer base, a medium sized business which does not have a large budget serving a global customer base.

In all three examples there are questions to ask as to whether the business can make social media work for it, the clue is in the title, it is SOCIAL media and not bought media. This means the content has to be of interest in a social context. Now that does not mean it will not work for businesses about business subjects, all business relationships after all are still built between people. What it does mean is that like all good conversations they cannot be one sided, one side cannot and must not control the agenda and moreover it has to be interesting the parties involved in the conversation. If you are at a party and people start to talk about something that does not interest you, you might feign interest for a while but eventually you will drift off to talk to someone else.

But the question here is whether social media can help these businesses to grow and is it effective for them versus traditional media.

Well the small business serving a local area can of course use local newspapers and magazines and also possibly use flyers or door drops. However there is also a very strong local community effect to be gained here. A local business is exactly that, with ties to both people and place. A successful social media strategy here would involve telling (or more accurately co-creating) the story of local people and events. Now clearly this has to be appropriate to the business in question, you would not want the local funeral parlour covering the carnival but perhaps they could host the telling of the story of a loved one’s life.

For the business working on a broader international or global stage social media is all about interest groups. Clearly to advertise your product or service on an international basis is going to take a lot of money and planning. The same applies to social media. Although you might be able to curate the conversation for interest groups, are those interest groups truly the same across the World, not to mention issues such as language or being online at the right time of day. But if you can manage all of that then social media does allow you access and a conversation with audience groups which are dynamic and more importantly on-going. Traditional media is great but does not support your ability to keep interacting with these customers.

Remember social media is not free, the tools may be free to access but the strategy, content and management all take time and investment. It is not a simple panacea to helping your business to grow but it does have a role to play and if used well and appropriately can help your business thrive.

It is a social conversation not a sales pitch, but if done well can be a cost effective way to build brand and commerce. If done badly however, well that’s another story….