Why a Facebook page won’t cut it anymore for UK SMEs

After last week’s Facebook outage caused mayhem across the globe, we look at the alternative digital solutions for small business owners.

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It seems a long time ago now that you could only ‘tag’ someone in a playground, a ‘wall’ was just something that held a house up, and ‘DM’s’ referred exclusively to Doc Marten shoes.

No matter your opinion on it, social media has fundamentally changed the way we interact with each other, with billions of users logging on everyday to discuss, debate, and, importantly, purchase.

Indeed, the sheer number of diverse advertising audiences is one of the reasons that small businesses rely so much on social media. According to company data, in 2019, Facebook generated £2.5bn from advertising revenue alone in the UK.

But earlier this month, Facebook experienced its worst outage in years. The site went completely offline for six hours, causing mayhem for millions of business pages and adverts.

We spoke to UK SMEs to find out more about the effect the outage had on their companies, asking why many are moving away from Facebook, and examining the other digital channels available.

What caused the Facebook outage?

On Monday 4 October, billions of Facebook users across the globe suddenly noticed they were unable to access the social media giant’s platform, nor its messaging services and the other services it runs, including Instagram and Whatsapp. It would be down for six hours in total.

Later in the week, the site crashed again due to complications caused by Monday’s outage. This time, the platform was inaccessible for two hours.

So what caused the issue?

To avoid sounding like a bad 90’s hacker movie, we’ll go easy on the tech jargon. In basic terms, the site was carrying out some server maintenance when a networking issue meant it accidentally stopped telling the internet where its servers were. This meant Facebook suddenly appeared not to exist.

What was the impact on UK SMEs?

Thousands of SMEs use Facebook and Instagram to host ads, communicate with customers through WhatsApp and Messenger, and sell their wares through Facebook Marketplace.

Despite the page only being down for 8 hours in total – a relatively short closure compared to retailers with physical shop fronts – such is the dominance of social networks that many small firms were left without any platform or advertisements for that time. This caused not just a profit loss, but also uncertainty and panic.

Harvey Morton is the founder of Harvey Morton Digital, a digital marketing consultancy firm. Morton told us: “Facebook and Instagram are integral to my business, particularly as my primary offering is social media management. Any outages like we experienced last week can cause chaos, meaning schedules have to change and results and engagement can't be reported on. Some clients also had paid advertising campaigns running which meant that they were being charged for social media adverts but getting no results, which was frustrating. I felt powerless as my clients were asking me for updates on what was happening but I had no control over the situation.”

Tom Higgins is the owner of Gifta, the UK’s first brand-to-Influencer gifting logistics company. Higgins said: “It has made us more aware of how reliant we are with particular software and social media platforms. We are building internal action plans if anything happens like this again so that we can respond to our clients as quickly as possible.

In answer to the outage, some business owners said they were considering moving away from social media, sensing the little security that a Facebook page alone can offer.

Samantha Jane is the founder of House Designer, an interior design company. Jane commented: “Facebook and Instagram are without a doubt one of the biggest platforms for many businesses worldwide. It is very important for my company as we use these platforms for marketing. I don't believe [the outage is] something that will happen often. We will continue to use these platforms along with other marketing routes in a bid to remain a successful business.”

How did Facebook respond to the outage?

Facebook published apologetic statements on its website, whilst Instagram announced new policies regarding how it would deal with future issues with the platform, including an instant notification for users if the site goes down.

However, only some small business owners told us they had received direct information from Facebook regarding potential refunds and support. Others, sadly, have yet to hear anything from the platform.

Harvey Morton, founder of Harvey Morton Digital, added: “Nothing was communicated when the outage happened, so it was a guessing game as to when things might go live again. Usually outages like this only last for a few hours, I never expected the platforms to still be unavailable the next morning.

Since the outage, Facebook has communicated to credit any money spent on advertising campaigns back to my clients, and advised that content could be rescheduled to go out at an alternative time if it was missed.”

Keshia East is the founder of No Knot Co, a black-owned business that sells hair tools and accessories for Afro hair. East told us: “We didn't receive any communications from Facebook during [the outage] or since! It has definitely made us more aware of how fragile Instagram and Facebook are. We will certainly be looking at alternative marketing routes.”

Why do small businesses use social media?

Brand building is an integral part of early growth for SMEs. As a small business owner, you’re constantly looking for new and exciting ways to get your name out into the market and build a consumer base.

Social platforms are a great solution to aid you in reaching this goal. It’s typically free to create an account and you can post various marketing materials including photos, copy, and videos. You can also easily interact with consumers using direct messaging or comments features – and, most importantly, you can also spend money on ads which are then tailored to your target audience using Facebook algorithms.

Keshia East, founder of No Knot Co, explained: “Instagram has played a HUGE role in my business. It's actually been the primary marketing tool for us since we started in September 2020. I actually started the Instagram page before we launched so the day our website went live I had made 10 orders in the first few hours! It's also a great way for us to reach our customers and build our curl community.”

Another benefit that social networks give SMEs is greater customer profiling, which can be crucial to preventing cyber attacks or scams.

Jimmy Fong is CCO at SEON, a fraud prevention company. Fong told us: “For online small businesses today, social media and social profiles are fast becoming a quicker and stronger validation of a ‘good customer’. This is important as the ubiquity of a social presence is a much stronger modern-day validator of identity for any new online customers looking to buy.

“Our own data indicates that over 87% of fake (or fraudulent) buyers don’t have a robust social footprint. Why’s this important? The premise is that it is very easy to create an email address, but it is certainly not as easy to recreate an entire social footprint.”

Social media is a great tool for small businesses – but they can be tricky to manage once you start scaling up. The right software can provide support, guidance and increased cybersecurity.

Read our expert guide to the best social media management tools to learn more about the benefits they offer.

Can you run your business without social media?

At some point in the past five years, we’ve probably all fantasised about not needing to rely on social media – but in the world of business, it’s not really as utopian an idea as might first appear.

There are plenty of brand case studies that have closed their social networking accounts – many of which remain household names.

In April 2020, Lush breathed new, scented air into its online marketing strategy by closing their main social channels and instead encouraging users to produce social content with the hashtag #Lush.

Similarly, Elon Musk’s famous electric car company Tesla, which reached number 100 in the Fortune 500 list earlier this year, cancelled its Facebook account in March 2018. Musk cited the website’s poor data protection laws and much-publicised security breaches which he said “gives [me] the willies”.

What are the alternatives to social media?

The above examples are proof that you might not need a Facebook account to succeed – but these businesses are by no means turning away from the internet.

Elon Musk, for example, remains an active mouthpiece for Tesla on Twitter, while Lush’s solution was about handing the keys to its customers, rather than driving the business in a completely new direction.

What these case studies do indicate is a new way of using social media that gives brands more digital power. By not relying on just one platform to represent your entire online presence, you can diversify your portfolio and minimise the potential damage caused by a future Facebook outage.

Harvey Morton agrees. He told us: “I have a website, and so do all of my clients so it wasn't leaving anyone without an online presence. Thankfully, Twitter and TikTok were still active, which meant that I could still share content for my clients and myself on these platforms as planned.

The outage proved that sometimes even all of the planning in the world around an advertising campaign still means that you don't have everything under control.”

If you’re a small business owner looking to do just that, here are some solutions to consider:

Build your own website

Owned audiences are a great way to protect yourself against relying on a social platform to generate business leads, and there’s no better way to get them than by building your own website.

Small business websites not only make your company look more credible, but they can also give you a wider range of functions than Facebook ever could. If you’re an online retailer, for example, high-performing software like Wix can provide you with a great range of ecommerce elements spanning everything from payment processing to inventory management.

But websites and social platforms don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, with modern web builders like Squarespace, it’s easy to integrate your Instagram and Facebook profiles to display live feeds of your blogs and posts.

What about the cost?

One of the biggest benefits to using a social platform like Facebook is that it is free to use, but there are also plenty of free website builders for small businesses, as our expert guide outlines.

Plus, there are tons of discounts and deals available, with many big-name providers offering big savings if you commit to annual subscriptions over monthly.

Here’s a breakdown of the average costs:

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Website builders are complicated, and finding the right one for your business can be challenging – which is why we’re here to help. Want to know more about the best website building software for your business? Then read our expert guide to the top 6 website builders for SMEs.

Find other communication channels

If you sell goods through Facebook Marketplace or Instagram Shopping, you’ll likely have a database of customer leads which you can access to let them know about the issue and market your brand through other routes, such as SMS texting or emailing.

Email marketing is also a good way to launch your own newsletter, which follows a similar subscription-style model to social platforms but, like building your own website, gives you greater ownership of your audience.

This is especially important for client relationships. If you manage ads or pages for clients, make sure you have alternate messaging apps in place so you can contact them directly with updates, and to reassure them that you are working on fixing the problem

Tom Higgins, founder of gifting company Gifta, told us: “It's really important for us to keep all our clients up to date with any issues that may occur on social media platforms which are out of our control.

“If future problems arise the client service team now follows an internal process to contact all our clients to update them and reassure them within one hour of us noticing any issues.”

Conclusion

For many small businesses, the positives will outweigh the negatives when it comes to having a social media presence for your firm. Despite the uncertainty caused by its recent blackout, Facebook will certainly not be losing its position as the number one online location for small business marketing any time soon.

However, there are steps you can take to minimise the impact caused by a future outage, such as building your own website or investing in email marketing, to cast your digital net as wide as possible and catch consumers from all over the world wide web.

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Helena is from Yorkshire and joined Startups in 2021 from a background in B2B communications. She has previously written for a popular fintech startup covering everything from money-saving tips to cultural reviews.

She is particularly interested in project management software and the films of Peter Jackson.

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