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The days before the 2021 inauguration showed us unmistakably why small business owners need to own their own customer data. Social media platforms made plain who was really in control of site content, and even suspensions and shutdowns of accounts in their platforms. This matters not just for those controversial cases, but to the small business owner whose goal is to promote his or her business in the social media arena.

This is not to say small businesses should shy away from social media platforms just because they do not have the ultimate say in how these are run. While these avenues should play a role in your marketing strategy, you need your own platform as well. Let’s take a look at why.

The Plus Side of Social Media

There are many benefits to being active on social media platforms. Connect with customers. Attract potential customers to take a look at your products or service. Elicit customer feedback. Increase market reach. Build customer loyalty. Promote name brand awareness. Social media provides consumers with social proof, the idea that if other people are doing it, it must be right. In this case, if you have built up so many followers or subscribers, this business must have something going for it, and I should shop here, too. Oh, and it’s free to create a profile on these sites and interact with consumers, so why wouldn’t you?

Building Likes and Followers and Subscribers and Shares grows your community, or your tribe. Social media platforms provide a place where you can communicate with your customers at any time of day or night, and they can respond 24/7, too. You’re not tied to hours of operation, and your conversation is not private, either. Which on the plus side of social media, is something you want, because you’re going to have others tuning into these conversations and deciding that you are a company they want to interact with, too, and one day, purchase your products or services.

Social media can make you a star in your field. A text or an image that goes viral can draw the attention of shoppers who might not have even known you existed. Viral doesn’t necessarily have to be worldwide or nationwide. If you can go viral among the customer demographic that means most to you, that’s plenty. You’re getting your name out, you’re raising awareness of your brand, and you’re distinguishing yourself from the competition.

Image credit: Gerd Altman

The Downside of Social Media as a Customer Data Tool

What those days in January showed us, though, is that your social media sites do not belong to you. You might believe that you’ve built a community of subscribers by posting relevant content and responding to reader’s comments. You’ve seen the number of people following your Twitter or Instagram increase over time. You’ve spent time creating value on your Facebook business page. You have committed yourself to keeping your social media presence up-to-date and relevant.

Your community is affected by a number of factors in a social media platform. At any time, with or without explanation, a platform can suspend your account or shut down your profile. More often than that, a change in a platform’s algorithm affects what others see or do not see. Very often one social media platform replaces another. Anyone remember Friendster, Tbh, or Friends United?

It’s the social media platform that benefits most from what you believe is your customer data. They have the ability to track the clicks, the open rates, the replies, and then use that data for their own benefit. Unfortunately, that’s not something they’re going to share with the businesses who help gather that data for them. Sure, you can use something like Facebook Insights to see how well your posts are doing and who liked, saw, or engaged in your page, but these statistics don’t give you enough specific information about the visitors for you to create personalized marketing campaigns.

Most importantly, then, you don’t acquire any demographic information about your customer on social media. When someone clicks your button to subscribe, you probably don’t see even their real name, not to mention anything like an email address, phone number, or address. You can’t effectively market to people you know nothing about.

How to Own Your Own Customer Data

So how do you make sure you control your own data? Simply put, build your own customer list. This could be accomplished through your own website, mobile app, or direct mail. Through these types of media, you can have a contact form for customers to find out more about your product or services, or get in touch with you with questions. Offer a free download with information relevant to your customer in exchange for their name and email address. Create a coupon for the buyer to use in exchange for their phone number. This is your own data without any third party control. Now you can be active in marketing to customers rather than passive like on social media. You can present custom special offers, send push notifications, and personalize your direct mail and email communications.

Make social media platforms work for you instead of solely the other way around. Use social media to drive visitors to your website, your app, and your physical location. Add links and offers to your social media pages that send visitors to your own platforms. When they arrive, make sure you get their information to add to your own customer management system. Build a robust database.

When you own your own customer data, you can build a customer profile and create customer segmentations. With this information, you can initiate your own conversations with potential buyers and long-term customers. You will know much more about these people than the little you might be able to guess from social media platforms. Now you can create targeted messages based on these segments’ demographics, psychographics, geography, needs, behavior, and values. You will be the one who controls your own customer data and you will be the one who profits from that information.