Facebook’s outage on Monday, October 4, 2021 locked users of the social media services Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp out of their accounts for several hours—and literally locked employees out of the building because the company lost access to its own servers, which power their key-card access systems. Facebook’s stock price took a nosedive during the outage, and it’s reported that Mark Zuckerberg lost $7 billion in just a few hours of the outage.
But perhaps most impacted by the outage were the small businesses who rely on Facebook for advertising, ecommerce tools, and customer interactions. These businesses’ online storefronts were involuntarily shut down during the outage, costing them valuable revenue. Because when Facebook is down, many small businesses are, too.
Many small businesses use Facebook apps as their storefront
Facebook has long argued that they are working in the interest of small business owners, who they actively push to center all of their business practices on their app. That makes an outage particularly dangerous to an SMB’s bottom line.
These small business owners who sell products through Facebook and Instagram ads, communicate with customers through WhatsApp and Messenger, and sell their wares through Facebook Marketplace are left without a platform for as long as the outage lasts.
This is not a new problem. It’s hard to make a website that can compete on the search engine results pages (SERPs) against big names with strong domain authority. Small businesses instead rely on social media and ecommerce platforms like Etsy to help them connect to wider audiences. But when you count on another platform to bring you your audience, you gamble on your access to that audience. Facebook owns your audience, and your access to contact information that you own—an owned audience—is greatly reduced.
What is an owned audience?
An owned audience is marketing speak for the groups of customers who you can contact directly, either through email, phone calls, text messages, or mail. These are often people who have made a purchase on your website, signed up for a newsletter, or given you their email address or phone number in a loyalty program.
For brick-and-mortar or hybrid retail spaces, owned audiences may be people who found your business through foot traffic or local referrals, and have given you their contact information.
If the only way that you can contact your audience is through someone else’s platform— Facebook, Instagram, Etsy, Pinterest, DoorDash, Google MyBusiness, for example—you do not own that audience. The platform owns the their contact information and the ability to contact those customers directly, and you rent access to it.
How do I build an owned audience?
To build a sustainable business that is (mostly) safe from the algorithmic whims or server crashes of someone else’s software, you don’t have to build your own internet from scratch. But you do need to do a couple of things to protect your access to your customers.
- Collect email addresses and start a newsletter
A newsletter is an effective way of gauging customer interest in individual products and your brand as a whole. Bonus points if you use your newsletter to promote and inform instead of only sending a coupon every couple of weeks.
- Run your own website
While tools like Google MyBusiness make it easy for you to put your restaurant’s menu online and Facebook or Instagram make it easy to sell your products directly to consumers, a standalone shop means you have a place to send customers that you control.
- Invest in customer loyalty tools
Customer loyalty products that give discounts or free stuff to customers who give you their email address or sign up for text message alerts can increase customer loyalty and give you access to these people outside of social media.
- Export customer data into a CRM
A customer relationship management (CRM) software gives you a database of your customer information that is outside of the control of other platforms. When you export your customer data here, you retain your records, and many tools can connect directly to your ecommerce platform.
- Use platforms that let you own your data
Some blogging, newsletter, and social media apps will help you connect with wider audiences, but they reserve access to the contact information of those audiences. Many of these platforms claim they are protecting the privacy of their users, but these policies often lock both sides into using the platform indefinitely. Look for platforms that make it easy for interested audiences to share their contact information with you.
Also read: 11 Tips for Switching Ecommerce Platforms
You worked hard to earn your audience; you should keep it
It’s easy to assume that Facebook’s apps will come back tomorrow and all of this will blow over. Hopefully losing out on one afternoon of sales from Facebook ads won’t do irreparable damage to anyone’s business. But the lesson is clear: While Facebook giveth, Facebook can certainly taketh away. You can’t rely on their algorithms, access, and audiences to grow your business. At the very least you need to diversify your marketing strategies to include direct access to customers.