For two days this past summer, online men's clothing retailer Blank Label's social media presence went dark -- 48 hours without a new Twitter post or fresh Facebook posting. This was no technical hiccup, but rather a deliberate experimental maneuver by company cofounder Danny Wong and his partners to adjust the custom shirt design venture's social media strategy on the fly. Because from a revenue standpoint, they could no longer justify spending as much time and money on generating and updating content for networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
"We spent a lot of time fiddling around with [social networks] during the day, to where it was a mental and a time drain. But we weren't generating sales from it," Wong says. Meanwhile, the company's social media push coincided with a huge surge in demand, which created supply problems that urgently needed solving. Something had to give.
"So we decided we would just worry about updating it once a day, or a few times a week," he says, "and instead focus more effort on things that were working well for us, like media relations."
For the Blank Label braintrust, the self-imposed social media silence was "incredibly uncomfortable," recalls Wong. So much so that after two days, he and his partners opted to resume social networking activity, though in a much-reduced capacity. Ultimately, however, the blackout served its purpose, providing them with a clearer idea of where social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter should rank among the company's strategic priorities, and of how an overreliance on those tools can actually hamper a small business.
"You just try to figure out what's most important," Wong says. "It's a bit hard jumping off bandwagons, but you can always get back on. We'll get back on the social media bandwagon, but we'll do it with a new approach and a little more testing."
Amid the hype about social networks and the many positive things they can do to help businesses build a buzz come tales from the social media counterculture -- cases of trend-bucking entrepreneurs such as Wong making a strategic decision to de-emphasize social media, to the benefit of their businesses.
Sometimes it's a case of social media being mismatched to the marketplace a company serves. For example, Twitter and Facebook tend not to be a good fit for some law firms and doctors' offices, due largely to the unique sensitivity of their work and the client/patient relationships that accompany it, says Aaron Sylvan, who runs TrustWorks, a social networking software developer. The same often holds true for financial firms, as Stephan Nicoleau, managing partner at Critical Value Advisors, discovered after his financial consulting firm's foray into social media. "The goal when I started the firm was to use things like Twitter and Facebook to help build a fresh and new brand in the financial space."
What Nicoleau concedes he failed to realize is that, due largely to regulatory issues, the financial firms he was targeting "aren't on Twitter or Facebook. The audience wasn't there and the leads weren't coming in," he says. "So we stopped maintaining those things. The opportunity cost was high. It was either update Twitter or have a conference call with somebody who potentially could contribute significantly to revenue. We realized that in our business, it makes more sense to be out there meeting people. It's face-to-face relationships that drive small businesses like ours forward. "
Meager returns on the hours they were spending on social media prompted entrepreneurs Michelle McCullough and Michael Hess to retrench. McCullough, owner of Doodads Promotional Products in Salt Lake City, says she enthusiastically embraced social networking in 2008 as a low-cost way for her young company to build a quick buzz. Two years later, the verdict is in: The two to three hours a day she had been spending to market via Twitter and Facebook would be better spent on traditional means of relationship-building. "Catalog requests increased [as a result of social media]," she acknowledges. "But to this day, I can't list a single order that came via Facebook or Twitter. So now I spend 15 minutes a day on social media and a lot more time on face-to-face networking, because in a competitive space like the one I'm in, what's going to separate me are the relationships I build. And you can't build relationships in 140 characters or less. The bottom line is social media can't create the kind of chemistry I need with customers."
Hess, who heads Skooba Design, a Rochester, N.Y., company that makes laptop and camera bags, aborted a brief experiment with a high-end blog for similar reasons. Building a network of independent bloggers to contribute content along with a "graphically beautiful" web environment to house that content yielded little, he says. "We weren't getting much new [website] traffic via the blog, so [after nine months] we decided just to take it down."
But Hess says the experience yielded a valuable lesson about using social media for business: "Just because you can doesn't mean you should. At the end of the day, there has to be a business case for what you do. And you can only do so many things." He's since redirected the resources Skooba had dedicated to the blog toward activities such as product and website development, while maintaining a presence on networks such as Facebook and YouTube, where Skooba has a strong following.
Small companies in particular often make the mistake of "not choosing the right [social media] tool for the job," observes Sylvan. "They try to be involved in all these different things and end up not being able to stay on top of any of them. Instead, figure out one or two tools to best reach your target audience, and stick with them."
Solopreneur Jenifer Rega enthusiastically embraced social networking to support the launch of her fitchicnyc.net website. But when the site quickly took off, the demands of keeping pace with the frenetic Facebook and Twitter activity became too much. So she cut back drastically on her engagement there.
Entrepreneurs like Rega who lack the bandwidth to regularly participate in the dialogue within a given social network might be better served using another means of communication, says Sylvan. "One tweet a week won't cut it, but one blog post a week might."
Still, Rega, like fellow entrepreneurs Wong and Hess, is leaving the door open to increase her social networking activity, this time with a more methodical approach. That's because, as Hess points out, "social media has value. We just haven't figured out how to make it have value for us."
David Port is a freelancer based in Denver who writes on small business, and financial and energy issues.