Nearly 70 percent of small businesses are either "somewhat" or "very likely" to use social media in the next 12 months, according to a research firm Techaisle, which looked at 406 US businesses of up to 99 employees.
Of those businesses, 36 percent already use Facebook, 35 percent use LinkedIn and just 24 percent use Twitter, which is second only to MySpace at 14 percent. As far as more traditional online media is concerned, 28 percent have a blog, while 81 percent have a website involving their company name.
That's good news for Mark Zuckerberg, no doubt, but is it wise for a smaller business to invest precious marketing expenditure in social media? And should that be at the expence of websites, that nearly all businesses have in place, but which perhaps are showing their age in the social universe?
Traditional HTML-driven websites are just another publishing platform. They offer rapid publishing compared to print, and the content can be changed as often as a business requires. But from a marketing perspective the model is not much evolved beyond billboards or other forms of advertising: people will look at content if it catches their eye or if it contains information they need, but ultimately they move onto something else.
Even getting visitors to visit your website is not guaranteed. In short, if you build it, they won't necessarily come. The specialised skill to acquire visitors can add significantly to a website's cost. Businesses can try and game search engines to get their sites near the top of the results list (something called Search Engine Optimisation, or SEO) although, more effectively, businesses tend to support the website via other forms of marketing, everything from Google Adwords that appear alongside search results to mentioning the URL in traditional forms of advertising.
In short, a website requires a lot of propping-up from other components of a marketing budget, so perhaps isn't as inexpensive as merely hiring a web designer for a few days, as is commonly thought.
By way of contrast, Facebook and Twitter are inexpensive, almost self sustaining and offer a constantly evolving stage for your products. Create a Facebook page for your new product or service and you'll be able to instantly respond to questions from users, as well as generate a fan base that will automatically share details of your product if they like it. Make a tweet about the product and it might be retweeted by others, and again you can instantly field responses.
Whereas traditional advertising (including websites) is the equivalent of shouting through a megaphone at people, social media is the equivalent of walking through the crowd and conversing with each person individually.
And all it takes is little more than a couple of staff members to act as virtual bar keeps to sustain the party atmosphere. Throw in a handful of traditional marketing exercises, such as product giveaways or competitions, and the results will be even better. Even surveys can be used as a method of engaging users.
Is it time to abandon traditional websites?
Of course not. The chief problem is that, to continue the metaphor above, most social media sites are invitation-only parties. You have to create an account to participate. Millions of us have done just that, but it's still only a percentage of all online individuals.
Invitations to the party are easy to come by, but not everybody wants to attend. Some people just don't get what it's all about. Some people get what it's about but actively don't like it (a significant number, if my personal experience is anything to go by, the Facebook hate crowd is an ever present minority).
A surprising number of people use the web like it's 1999. Not everybody wants a sports car. Some are pretty happy with station wagons.
What's needed within a business is a policy of embracing all new media and using each element to its strengths. Websites should be seen as the trunk of the tree of your online marketing, from which everything else is a branch. Websites are good for static but vital information, such as company details or spec lists for products. Not only isn't there space for that kind of thing on Facebook, or in Twitter posts, but it would look out of place.
Facebook and Twitter should ideally be used to launch anything that's new, whether that's products, services, or initiatives. It should be used where direct engagement with users can be useful. Even email has a place. Some companies partner it to Facebook to collect email addresses to which discount vouchers are sent, for example.
Used wisely and competently, social media shouldn't increase your marketing budget significantly either, especially compared to the costs of creating and promoting a website, or marketing within traditional media.
The next time a Facebook friend of yours "likes" or "shares" a product or service, join in the fun and learn how it's done. Often it's blissfully simple but devastatingly effective.