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Social media platforms help businesses engage customers

If your eyes glaze over when we mention social media, this article’s for you.

Sure, it can all be so confusing: Is it Spacebook? Or Myface? And what’s “tweetering?”

But increasing numbers of small businesses use social media, and if you want to compete, you should consider it, too.

The Small Business Authority Market Sentiment Survey found that 57 percent of respondents had a Twitter or Facebook account in July, up from 47 percent a year earlier. But that means 43 percent didn’t have an account, and if you’re like most small-business owners and managers, two big reasons hold you back.

The biggest constraint: Time.

“Many small businesses, and the people who run them, are already doing everything for their business. One more commitment just scares them off,” said Jim Gentleman, senior vice president of account management and strategy for SK+G Advertising. “Once you commit to social media, you really need to back it up with constant oversight. You can’t just create an account on Facebook or Twitter and not do anything with it.”

And then there’s the potential for negative feedback.

“Some companies are concerned that they won’t have total control over how they’re viewed on social media. Facebook can be a forum for irate customers and disgruntled former employees to speak out,” said Ruth Furman, owner of public relations firm Image Words.

And for every business that eschews social media, there’s one that has a presence but isn’t maximizing it. A 2012 survey from small-business networking company Manta found that 58 percent of companies with a Facebook account feel they don’t promote it properly.

Whether you avoid social media or fail to make the most of it, you’re making a big mistake, said Michele Rothstein, owner of local party- and event-planning company Balloons With A Twist.

“Advertising is very expensive, and the Yellow Pages are out of date,” Rothstein said. “There are a lot of people sitting in front of their computer, tweeting or looking at Facebook. It doesn’t cost a lot of money to take advantage of that. Especially in hard times, it helps to not have to pay to promote your business.”

Small businesses that use social media give it a big thumbs-up. In a June Staples survey, 76 percent said they got a positive return on their efforts, and Manta found that 78 percent of respondents got 25 percent to 100 percent of their customers through social media.

In fact, a social-media presence is an imprimatur many consumers look for these days.

“It’s like websites many years ago. If you didn’t have a website, people didn’t think you were in business.” Furman said. “For a lot of companies, if you’re not on social media, people may not consider you to be legit. It really is something people look for to know if you’re a real business.”

Added Gentleman: “Social media can be the small business’ best friend. In many ways, it’s an equalizer. Its reach is significant. Over a billion users have a Facebook account, and hundreds of millions of people use Twitter. We’re becoming a digital society. That’s where the consumer is communicating, not only with each other, but with businesses. If you’re a small business, you’re really at a disadvantage if you’re not using social media.”

Finally persuaded to hop online? Consider how others got their start first.

establishing presence

We could spend an entire story reeling off social media channels. On top of titans including Facebook and Twitter, other players include Pinterest, Instagram, Google+, Tumblr, Yelp, YouTube, Blogger, Foursquare and Flickr.

Still, the most important social-media move you can make is to start with a manageable presence. Focus on one or two channels. And marketing experts agree hands-down on the sites most businesses should launch with first.

“Without question, you have to be on Facebook. That’s where all the people are,” Gentleman said.

Facebook also wins for its flexibility and ease of use. You can post text-based information, photos and video, and the timeline layout lets you organize your communications, Gentleman said.

Facebook is best for businesses with a visual product or service, Furman said. Take Balloons With A Twist: The company coordinates regular balloon drops, with hundreds of colorful balloons falling from the ceiling into crowds below. Rothstein takes pictures of the events and posts them online.

But Furman is partial to Twitter, because it lets you use hashtags, or the “#” sign, to call direct attention to your product on search engines or among other Twitter users. You can even use hashtags to build your follower base, as users interested in your product or service have an easier time finding you.

Twitter’s also ideal for companies that have “little bursts of news” to report, or that have a steady stream of links to industry-related articles or websites, Gentleman said.

“Facebook is more conversational, while Twitter is a headline kind of service,” he said.

If it’s your first go-round, or you want to keep your existing presence streamlined, skip blogs, Gentleman advised. They’re an important social-media tool, but only for the seasoned small-business owner who has the time, knowledge and writing skills to post an entry at least once a week.

“Blogs can be a great resource, but they can also become these vast wastelands where you don’t see any updates for six months. That leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths,” Gentleman said. “If a person isn’t serious about their blog, what does that say about their business?”

Start with smaller commitments, and you won’t need to spend much time maintaining your channels.

a little every day

Small businesses that succeed with social media make it a quick part of their daily routine.

Michael Walker, marketing director of Johnnie Walker RVs, began putting his family’s business on social media about six years ago. He started with a Facebook page, and added Twitter and a blog. Johnnie Walker was also the first recreational vehicle dealer on Instagram when it joined the photo-sharing website 14 months ago. The company especially increased its efforts in the last year, looking for new ways to tie social media into its website and drive traffic to its home page.

It all takes him less than two hours a week, Walker said. He sets aside a few minutes each day when he first gets to the office to check into the company’s channels “to see what’s going on.” Then he peruses industry websites and online trade journals for information his customers or suppliers might want or need. That includes everything from recipes for campers to personal pictures of family RV trips. There are also pictures of customers and articles on great RV destinations.

“I spend very little time on it. Once you get the flow of what’s going on, you can write 10 words to introduce an article or a photo, hit ‘submit’ and have something posted for the day,” he said. “It’s great because it lets us connect and maintain relationships with customers in a way that phone calls and letters could never accomplish.”

Balloons With A Twist joined Facebook in 2009, after Rothstein saw the effect the site had on her personal life.

“It was the amount of reach I could get from people — how you post something and they share it with their friends. It’s a trickle-down effect to reach more ears,” she said.

Today, the company is also on Twitter, and is about to launch its Instagram feed. She spends a few minutes posting five or six times a day — anytime she comes across an article or trend piece her customers might like. Plus, she puts up photos of company employees making large balloon animals or setting up for events.

Both businesses also use social media for sales and marketing promotions, but sparingly.

Balloons With A Twist’s branch in Boise, Idaho, might post a Facebook offer for $25 off for a party planning in the next week if you book now. On Johnnie Walker’s Facebook page, customers can enter camping photo contests to win RV replacement parts. The company also had a $100 giveaway to increase its Facebook fan count from 1,950 to 2,000.

Watch for pitfalls in social-media promotions, though. For one thing, be careful not to drum up more business than you can handle. Rothstein recalled a carpet cleaner that got so many orders from an online coupon that it took them two weeks to return her call, and another two weeks to make it to her place for a cleaning. More importantly, you don’t want to seem pushy. If you always promote your product or your pricing, people will tune you out, Gentleman said.

So intersperse promotional items with content that educates. A restaurant might post recipes, or a florist could profile an unusual flower people haven’t heard of, he suggested.

“Think about your relationships with people. The kinds of people you like aren’t the people who talk about how great they are. The people you like are people you learn from, or who improve your life,” he said. “Don’t always be about yourself. Give people tips or helpful hints that can interest them or improve their lives.”

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.Follow @J_Robison1 on Twitter.


The social-media channels you choose will depend on the type of business you run, as well as what kind of marketing you need. Here’s a rundown of the biggest players, and what they can do for you:

■ Facebook. The most popular social-networking site of them all, Facebook lets you post countless varieties of tidbits, from pictures of company events to customer reviews. More than half of businesses are on Facebook, because it’s the oldest of the high-profile media, and many business owners had personal accounts that made them comfortable with the technology. And with so many consumers on Facebook, you’re likelier to find a broad reach.

■ Twitter. This microblogging site can be a tougher nut to crack for companies. For one thing, you get just 140 characters — including spaces — per post to share news or talk products and services. Hashtags, or number signs, help you call attention to trends or products, but they’re easy to overuse. Still, it gives you an immediacy that other channels lack. Want to drive customers into your store to move out merchandise in the last half hour of business? Need to tell people where your food truck parked for lunch today? Twitter gets the word out fast.

■ Instagram. The photo-sharing site, which recently added 15-second videos to its capabilities, has been slow to catch on among small businesses. But big companies use it to call attention to product launches or special events. PayPal asks users to post photo journals of shopping purchases made through the site. Lexus grabbed hundreds of customer photos to make a stop-motion film of a new model. And a touring farm-to-table company puts up pictures of its chefs as they cook gourmet dinners to entice patrons. As with other social media, don’t set up a page unless you can sustain it. If your company doesn’t have a lot of photo-worthy events, you might want to skip this one.

■ YouTube. Forget goofy cat videos and laughing babies. YouTube’s real value comes with its ability to let you talk directly to both current and potential customers. Post videos of your staff at work, or put up a tutorial on how a product or a part of your business works. You can also feature video testimonials from customers. As a plus, search engines such as Google are likelier to offer search suggestions with video. That means more eyeballs for your business.

■ LinkedIn. In online professional networking, LinkedIn is the dominant player. This Facebook for the corporate set lets you connect with business associates, and post an extensive biography and resume, with highlights that call attention to your best services or talents. It swaps out Facebook’s “like” button for an “endorse” feature, through which you can give a thumbs-up to your connections’ expertise — and grab a few nods for yourself. You can also link your live feeds from other social media, such as Twitter.

■ Pinterest. This site lets users “pin” pictures of favorite items, from clothes to recipes, to their personal Internet pinboard and share them with friends. The site is popular with women — 80 percent of its users are female. Links take interested buyers directly to company websites, but as with other channels, it’s important to avoid too much self-promotion. You can ask fans to pin pictures of your products, but try to network with the site’s biggest pinners, and start by sharing news or items unrelated to your business, Furman suggested.


■ Look at what your competitors do. Before you launch or rework your Facebook page or Twitter feed, get a feel for how other members of the industry use the sites. You’ll get ideas about what works, and maybe spot an unfilled online niche. Also, tap into trade groups for resources. They often list stories or events on their websites that you can share with customers for a post that’s both easy and relevant, said Michael Walker, marketing director of Johnnie Walker RVs.

■ Get personal first. If you’ve never been on Facebook or Twitter, start your own feed to get a feel for how it works, Gentleman suggested. Pinning down the technical aspects of posting and networking can make you more comfortable when it’s time to bring your company online.

■ Ask for help. If you’re nervous about dipping your toe in the social-media pond, or you’re not sure you’re using it right, talk to someone who’s familiar. You can retain a consultant, or you can get some ideas from an employee with social-media savvy. If you have a teenager at home, he can show you a few basics as well.

■ Use networks’ resources. Social-media channels have free online seminars for businesses looking for networking primer. Tap into them for tips and advice.

■ Mind your P’s and Q’s. Few things hurt your credibility as much as typos, poor grammar and bad information. Read your posts over once or twice before you put them online. They should be as error-free as any full-page ad you’d buy in a big newspaper or magazine.

■ Include photos. Pictures grab a lot more eyeballs than standalone text, said Michele Rothstein, owner of Balloons With A Twist. Try to attach visuals with each Facebook post. But make sure the photos make sense: If they’re blurry or irrelevant, it’s better to skip them.

■ Don’t post too much. Few people want to wade through 20 or 30 posts a day. Nor do they appreciate bland, vague inanities like “have a great day.” If that’s all you have to say, step away from the “post” button. “Be thoughtful in your posts,” Rothstein said. “It’s really about educating people, or telling them about an upcoming event or something else that’s interesting.”

■ But don’t post too little, either. Make sure you have something to say at least once or twice a day, Rothstein recommended. And never go more than two or three days without putting up a tidbit. “Out of sight is out of mind,” she said.

■ Set a social-media policy. That means designating a person, or people, to handle all of your posts for a uniform voice, Furman said. You should also clarify what kinds of photos you’ll allow on your site.

■ Be prepared for blowback. Social media put you in close touch with your customers — both happy and unhappy. But don’t let the negatives keep you off of the Net. With review websites ranging from Yelp to Angie’s List, your customers will talk about you online whether or not you’re there to defend yourself, Gentleman said. Instead, stay professional, and don’t take it personally. Understand that some posters might try to bait you. “Just control your emotions, focus more on the problem at hand and don’t let it get personal,” Gentleman said.

■ Skip the aggressive sales push. You’ll turn off followers, and ultimately, customers, if every post promotes your products. The idea is to stay fun and engaging so you can build a brand and a steady client base. Walker calls his Facebook page a “customer-retention site” rather than a sales vehicle.

■ It’s OK if you’re not ready. If you truly don’t have the time or content for social media, and you’ll be one of those businesses that tweets every three months, don’t force it.

“Everyone on social media needs an authentic voice that is theirs,” Furman said. “If they don’t feel ready for it, I won’t push them.”

Gentleman agreed.

“If you’re not committed to spending time on it every day, don’t do it. Once you open an account, your audience expects you to update your information or posts. They’ll have a dialog on your site, and the worst thing you can do is not respond.”

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