THE BLOG
10/24/2014 05:10 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2014

Alternatives to Facebook for Small Business Marketing

My friend Faith Cosgrove, of the Dalles, Ore., has been in the interior design business for over 25 years, and has built a solid reputation in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and the rest of the West Coast. Over the years she has, as a business owner, been forced to adapt to a number of different marketing strategies in an effort to promote her business and stay alive. The rise of social media, however, has completely changed the game for her and most service professionals. And she's not exactly happy about it.

What frustrates Faith the most is that small businesses like hers are largely ignored in social channels like Facebook and Twitter, where the trending topics are dominated by household brands, celebrities and technology giants, unless of course one of those brands experiences a social fail, ala Amy's Baking Company. And because of that, user engagement levels are super low, especially for service professionals, and continuing to sink.

Service professional's come in many forms, from fitness trainers to landscapers to wedding planners to plumbers to interior designers and stonemasons. They typically don't have brick and mortar locations. Trucks? Yes, but big storefronts? No. And their social media budgets, if they have one, are tiny compared with those who dominate the conversation. Social media is an intensive, resource heavy activity. It is also an essential tool to try and master as a service pro, because driving the online conversation, even for a moment, generates new sales leads. For people like Faith, social media is a matter of DIY.

Many of Faith's peers simply follow popular media advice and attempt to promote themselves on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, without getting much return. And while Facebook might work well for a few service pros, it is a curse for an interior designer, or other small businesses concerned with image. Why? User generated content, in the form of follower posts on the business' wall, or in response to what that business has posted, is sometimes completely inappropriate for a business environment. The owner then has to delete the content, which typically angers the person who posted it, and things can go south from there.

In addition, a number of social media 'experts' continue to recommend that small businesses purchase sponsored posts, or buy some 'likes' on Facebook. That's also a losing strategy. Most of the ads I see now on Facebook are using advanced retargeting, which small businesses typically don't have the time, tools, or understanding to employ. Also, the broad array of content lends itself to the latest, 'most interesting' products and ads -- things like the Coolest Cooler, or any Apple product. Most service professionals just don't stand out in a way that can drive Facebook user engagement, because the content around them is not relevant like it is on a site like Houzz or Thursday Market, both of which are transaction focused.

In fact, a recent report shows that monthly Facebook engagement for all brands has dropped more than 40 percent since May of 2013.

So how would I promote myself online as a service professional, minus Facebook? Here's a list of the tools that I think are most effective for those who are interested in maintaining their brand image, engaging potential customers and generating leads:

1. Linkedin: above all else, Linkedin is a marketing wonderland where users can speak directly to any business audience they choose and get referrals. Linkedin's followers are engaged (eg., real), and the business page is user graffiti free.

2. Thursday Market: although I have only used Thursday Market as a beta tester (it actually launched today), the referral platform allows service pros to present their business in the best light, pin the geographic locations where that business has a presence, build like-minded teams of supporting service pros (such as a wedding planner teaming with a photographer), and best of all, generate word-of-mouth marketing from trusted sources, namely friends and neighbors. Ironically, Thursday Market is driven by the power of Facebook connections.

3. Houzz: this platform is unique to the home remodeling space, which suits someone like Cosgrove perfectly. The audience is fairly large, considering Houzz has been at it for a few years, and the site gives users an opportunity to publish content in the form of completed jobs. It also allows users to show clients browse potential designs at their leisure. Again, businesses are able to present the businesses in the best light without worry of user graffiti.

An interior design business is often judged on its ability to showcase its work online without worry, and Cosgrove's clients need to feel like she is trustworthy, considering her crew is working in their homes. User-added pictures of cats shared on her brand's Facebook page could kill the deal. Facebook simply does not meet the needs of today's small business and service professional, nor was it really intended to. If I were Faith, I'd spend the majority of my resources on other platforms.