An integrated presence online is key. And so is discipline

Shailey Mincoha is Professor of Learning Technologies and Social Computing at The Open University. And she’s awesome.

I had a chat with her over a cup of coffee last week, and she opened my eyes to some issues linked to my hypothetical startup and also to the way I work in general. Positive changes coming soon!

I’m going to break down our conversation into sections…

Mobile phone. Image: UnsplashKeep it personal, don’t do too much too soon

(You will be judged!)

When you’re a small business – and my husband confirms this as he’s the owner of one – there’s an expectation that you’ll be able to reach someone relatively quickly and get a personal response from a real person. Larger companies hide behind generic email addresses and standard replies, but small businesses have a real opportunity to inject their personality into what they do (see my interview with Little Love Notes on how promoting your business is promoting yourself).

Shailey says small firms shouldn’t fall into the trap of distancing themselves from customers by failing to efficiently respond to calls and emails. And by confusing customers with too many channels.

When you discover a new brand and want to find out more, what do you do? You Google them, visit their website, check out their blog, hop onto their Facebook page and Twitter profile and perhaps see how often they update it and how they engage with customers. If their page hasn’t been updated since 2013, and there are reams of customer queries without a response, you’ll log off with a bad impression of that company. Even though their product might be totally awesome.

And what happens when a member of staff sets up and runs the company Facebook page and then ups and leaves without handing over the log in details? Another page gets set up, then another and before you know it you have three different pages on Facebook, none being updated effectively. This looks bad to the customer too. One Green Bottle, for example, has several Facebook pages which have been left to gather dust, but the product looks great and news on the website is up to date and relevant.

“What is key for me is to have that integrated presence, don’t go into social media if you feel you need some experience first, because people will judge you on what you’re posting (or not posting). You don’t have to, on the first day, set up everything. Set up your website, experiment with a blog, have some kind of discipline,” says Shailey.

“People can panic too and go over the top if they’re confident in one particular skill. Try not to forget the other areas, decide what you want each channel for, what purpose does the technology serve? Businesses need to make clear distinctions between what happens on Facebook, for example, and what happens on the website as you don’t want to drive traffic away from your website if it’s doing its job.”

A personal approach is nice, but don’t over do it

Strike a balance

“It’s difficult to move from personal social media use to professional, you must balance it. What’s important is your product, your service and your relationship with customers, not showing too much of your human side,” says Shailey, who suggested one of my training resources be a best practice guide which should be kept refreshed.

The personal versus professional issue is somethingI I came across during a local networking meeting, where sole traders hadn’t made the leap from one to the other but were combining the two. I think, sometimes, people interpret personal as being informal and they’re very different. Informal is a tone of voice, personal is who you are.

iPad, cakes and drink on a desk. Image from UnsplashMore about that discipline…

Digital doesn’t mean working all hours just because you can

It’s easy to assume that digital means working 24/7, responding to emails the second they flash up on your mobile. Shailey suggests that a speedy response isn’t everything, it’s about discipline and setting expectations for your customers. She cites a small accountancy firm which adopts a potentially ‘old fashioned’ way of working, but not to the detriment of good customer relationships and efficiency. The firm opens and closes at a set time and will not respond to calls before or after this time, over the lunch break or during weekends. But rest assured, your message will be promptly responded to within 15 minutes of their doors opening. Customers understand that, they know when they’ll get their response and Shailey says it makes her more disciplined in the way she approaches them.

There are different ways to kickstart creativity too – start the day with a brainstorm over tea and cake and don’t start open the doors until the coffee’s drained and the crumbs are cleared away.

I really like this approach – both as a way to run my own business by setting clear work patterns, and as a way to help other small businesses approach tasks around content creation and digital marketing. I hate acronyms with a passion, but what about CAKE as a potential training tool? Chase, Attack, Kill, Eat seems a bit harsh for my target audience and this suggests I should probably steer clear.

On stage gig with 'free' in lights at the back. Image from UnsplashHow do you make money when so much out there is free?

You add value, that’s how

One of the big issues with my mini enterprise is that there’s so much free training already out there. But is there an overload? Where do you go, who do you trust?

Shailey says for small business owners who don’t have multiple skillsets – and that will be the majority – and with lack of funding and lack of time, value is key. Added value.

Perhaps what small businesses need,  she suggests, is access to a directory of social media strategists, web designers, free office space, startup toolkits, etc. Some of these services will be offered by ContentEd MK but I can’t deliver them all and there’s no point reinventing the wheel when there’s awesome content and training already out there. But there is value in finding the best of what’s out there and flagging it up. So, part of my training idea will involve creating content and curating resources of value to businesses in Milton Keynes. For example, Tech City UK has produced a great toolkit for digital startups as well as a series of 11 online courses covering everything from sizing up your idea to managing customers.

“SMEs will also need to know about copyright, intellectual property, the kinds of images they can use, how to deal with venture capitalists, interview skills and more. You need to create extra value,” says Shailey.

And she’s right. My skills are in online journalism and content creation and strategy, I don’t know the first thing about venture capitalists. But this is a learning journey for me too, and there’s no reason why I can’t research more about funding opportunities locally and use my local contacts to create resources or a directory helping local SMEs access this kind of information.

For example, each employee working for a small business can lose 15 minutes per day due to slow broadband connections. Government schemes like this one (now closed) offer grants of up to £3,000 to SMEs towards high speed broadband – benefitting a whopping 55,000 UK companies between 2013 and 2015 and helping to ‘transform the digital landscape’ and ‘boost business’. If I can tap into the options open to MK businesses, local and national, then that’s going to add value to the content training I’ll be offering. There are also Knowledge Transfer Partnerships available where business owners can work with academics like Shailey Minocha to give them the objectivity they need.


In conclusion

I’ve strayed off the beaten track here a little, my business idea is about content marketing and training. But Shailey’s confirmed things I already knew, and given me some inspiration. Discipline is something I can put into my own work, and help instil in others when they’re setting up social media profiles, sending eNewsletters and creating content. And this great blog post (I do love a bit of swearing in a blog post) offers some great tools and apps that help instil the discipline and plan content.

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