Navigating the changing face of social for small businesses.

I'd like to thank Shellee of HauteKnitYarn for inspiring these thoughts with her recent post. - Shireen


I’m old enough to have already been in advertising back before the dotcom crash, and I remember how intoxicating those days were; the dawn of online sales and the massive promise that accompanied it; of new jobs, new industries, and everyone making good money right off the bat. Folks left their careers to retrain in HTML and CSS, and now-obsolete technologies like Flash and Macromedia Director. I was also in advertising back when it was standard to pay an exorbitant amount of money to media-buy the back page of the Globe and Mail, or purchase a piece of rights-managed photography from Getty Images (things that have also been left obsolete by Social Media and affordable-to-free stock photography websites.). 

I was still in advertising when the dawn of of the Social Media startup came along. The Blue Brick was a classic case; in 2015 I had dyed a skein of yarn based off a photo I took on a road trip. The photo went viral and we decided to dye a few more skeins to see if folks liked what we did. Our first Etsy sale sold out in 15 minutes and the company was born. Later on I would invent my method for gradient yarn, and by 2017 I had left a successful advertising career to dye full time. Finally, in 2019 we went viral again for Ibis/Wingspan. That was only 4 years after we had started the company based on a lark, a way to make a little extra money to help pay for our wedding. All of it was organic and social media driven. 

That’s just my timeline, and my journey. These technologies, including other social media channels, predate my story. I do remember one thing though, that I heard early on, regarding facebook; “If you didn’t pay for the service, you are the product”

That stuck with me because, yes, we are the product. We are monetized for the advertising dollars that we make possible, for the free demographic data that we provide on our ages, interests, friend groups and purchasing habits. It sounds lousy when you put it like that, but it also carries enormous ability to direct how things go, though the power of our interactions. 

The free ride that was social media driven, free organic growth for small businesses, feels like it’s coming to an end. The algorithm has evolved to a point where there are more than enough paid ads for it to favour posts that generate revenue for the platorm, All of us are seeing less of the folks we follow and more of paid promotions in our feed. I don’t think posts by individuals will be pushed out entirely, but I also don’t see ads decreasing or going away. 

Our own feeds are receiving a slim percentage of the traffic we’re used to. A startling percentage of accounts are actually bots; trolling around popular feeds and leaving incendiary comments to serve some larger agenda. The feeds we do follow are in danger of getting hacked, resulting in the loss of followers (I blocked a baby animal feed that I loved after it got hacked by OnlyFans). 

The feeds that *are* successful are administrated by full time content creators who produce sophisticated high quality media. The content is flashy, accompanied by commercially licensed music, special effects, AI generated transformations and literal sex appeal. It’s hard to compete. 
Alrighty. So what are we to do? Well, neither side of the equation can afford to be passive if we want to direct the way things go. 

As consumers, we need to do the work to amplify the posts we want to see. We need to like, comment, share & save. Sign up for newsletters. Even if you don’t make a purchase, these things make a difference. Leave positive reviews online when you do make a purchase. Write and share testimonials. And, yes, I’ll say this, try to sort out any product or service issues with the company before deciding to post a negative review. I promise we want to make it right for you and a negative review is up there forever, inflicting damage for years to come. A 2013 study by Zendesk found that folks are more likely to post when they have a negative experience, whereas businesses need to solicit, and even incentivize, to get positive reviews. 

As business owners we need to learn how to utilize every free avenue given to us; like stories and reels, and diversify our posting to include multiple social platforms if possible. We have to take care of our customers to ensure that our stories are good ones. I’m totally guilty here, but we need to try and provide timely customer service and responses, from actual emails to dms and comments. Support each other through collaborative posts and story shares. 

This part isn’t fun, but we need to take a crack at paid advertising if it’s financially doable. Those of us who are (or are willing to become) tech-savvy can benefit from paid scheduling and analytic tools to streamline our efforts and get actionable data to measure our results and refine our approach. Without analytics we are posting into the void and hoping something resonates. The future will belong to those of us who understand SEO, who utilize data mining to direct marketing efforts and, alas, are able to pay to amplify our own voices. This is not who we are. It feels like joining the dark side. But it is perhaps who we need to become, in order to survive. As someone who has spent decades in advertising, I can guess at which way the wind is blowing here. We need to stand out in a noisy world.
None of us have the time to be our own PR and media agency on top of everything else, and I sometimes don’t see that we have a choice in the current milieu. BUT. There is a but coming, right?

All hope is not gone folks, we are our own demographic. We still have the power to amplify the voices of small, indie makers who drive innovation and diversity in the market without letting the market preference slide exclusively to those with money and technical knowhow. Engagement and purchases drive influence and keep the makers you love from being drowned out. The same goes for local restaurants, mom and pop shops, and local service providers. Is it always affordable? No. Smaller businesses don't have the bulk buying power to keep prices low or ship for free. But without them, what we want is dictated to us by those who have the money to buy our attention. Innovation, variety and diversity are lost. 

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that flashy, loud media doesn’t appeal to me, so the people who want to see what *we* do are still out there. We just need to fight harder to be heard above the noise, and, perhaps, to be willing to adapt our methods to the changing face of advertising. Consumers like us do not want to be force fed things we didn’t sign up for. As someone who has been in the industry for 25 years now, I have seen the trends come and go. I have seen job titles become obsolete. I know change is the only constant. But we, as consumers, still have the power to dictate the direction things go in because we are STILL the product.