What can small businesses learn from a retired prom DJ?

When I was in high school and college, I ran my own DJ service. I’d spend my Friday and Saturday evenings driving across southern Maine, setting up my lights and speakers, and playing Top 40 hits for homecomings, proms, and other special events.

I did all of my marketing through word-of-mouth and direct mail. Right before the start of school each year, I’d design a brochure on my computer, have copies made at Kinkos, stuff them in envelopes with a couple of business cards, and drop them in the mail. I’d repeat that process around the first of the year, when prom committees would be making their final plans for spring events.

I built my mailing list by going to the public library and looking through phone books from across the region to get the street addresses of all the middle and high schools.

This was tedious work…and fairly expensive by the standards of an 18 year old. But I paid for a good chunk of my undergraduate education that way.

When I think about the social media revolution, and all the tools that are available today, I often wonder what my business would have been like if I could easily build my own Web site, connect with clients and fans via Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, and show off my really cool light show on YouTube.

I don’t have to look very far to find the answer, because one of my brothers, Tim, followed in my footsteps. He started his own DJ business and plays at many of the same schools and events I used to do.

He’s a freshman in college, and makes full use of social media to market his business. He has hundreds of Facebook and MySpace fans, and takes requests through Facebook and text message. He can send e-blasts with the click of a mouse, and will never know the pain of paper cuts on your tongue from licking 500 envelopes.

Of course, social media is just a tool. Effective marketing still requires strategic thinking, compelling messages, thoughtful engagement with your audiences, and a solid product/service.

It’s still hard work, and it isn’t free. It requires regular attention and deeper engagement with audiences. But it levels the playing field and gives smaller companies access to tools and tactics that were once available to only the largest of brands.

Despite all of these opportunities, many small businesses are reluctant to embrace social media. I know it can be overwhelming…but with a little bit of guidance, patience, and perseverance, it can deliver significant ROI for your business.