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Utilizing social networking in your business

Volume 26/Number 25; April 29/May 6, 2013

Conversation, not content, is king

by Melissa McGuire

Most companies understand the significance of having a social media presence, however, many are at a loss as to how to use this medium effectively. If you have flirted with any of the more popular social networking sites—LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest—you’ve taken a step in the right direction. But now is the time to buckle down, streamline your social media strategy and understand the infinite possibilities out there for all business types and sizes.

“Social media has matured enough in that everyone realizes it has power,” said Ian Baer, chief strategy and creative officer at Rauxa, an integrated brand marketing agency headquartered in Orange County, Calif., with offices in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and Chicago. “Today the Internet is affecting more purchase decisions than any medium in history. Choosing to participate in social media is really not an option anymore. It’s where the relevant conversation is taking place. You can pretend it’s going away, but it’s not.”

The good news is the Internet and social media have become a tremendous equalizer for the “little guy.” What social media can do, Baer explained, is “in addition to finding customers, it’s a great way for a business to box above its weight.” For example, every day specialty retailers, large and small, have to compete against the Home Depots and Lowe’s of the world. “In the past, it was mandatory to have a certain level of brand awareness with big boxes spending big money on big advertising. For many, it was impossible to keep up or even play in the same arena. Now, with the appropriate usage of social media, content can be one of the best equalizers. You don’t need a six-figure production budget to create compelling content online.”

It is important to understand where people are going online to get their information. “If I search a topic on Google, I’ll get an obscene amount of hits within a certain parameter. Google is only an algorithm. It looks at everything out there that uses particular words, runs a number of analyses and spits out what it thinks is most relevant.”

Conversely, social media puts an extra filter on a search and derives more targeted results. “Eighty percent of all people considering your business will check you out online, and the majority of online traffic goes through social media,” Baer said. “It only makes sense to ensure the medium is working to your advantage.”

Where to begin

Social media is most effective in connecting a business with prospective customers, but it is also a great opportunity to align with complementary companies, especially using LinkedIn and, to a lesser extent, Facebook, Baer explained. “This is an excellent way to find other businesses that don’t necessarily compete with you, but complement your offering. You can put together a multiproduct or multiservice platform, which enables you to level the playing field with larger companies.”

In illustration, Flooring America recently embarked on a lead-sharing program with carpet cleaner Stanley Steemer. The effort was designed to drive more customers into member stores and has been extremely successful thus far. “Flooring America did not want to be in the carpet cleaning business and Stanley Steemer didn’t want to be in the flooring business, so we formed an alliance that benefitted us both,” said Keith Spano, president.

To get started with LinkedIn, all you have to do is register, and it’s free. “Like most social networks, LinkedIn has an effective, built-in tool that scours your existing social networks, email and phone contacts. After registering, you should find a possible 100 to 200 existing connections right out of the gate,” Baer noted. “If the person you’re connecting with has an average of 300 connections and you instantly find 100 people you know, then your network going out to the second or third generation will already be in the thousands.”

Another useful and powerful tool is Facebook. It not only provides the means for a business to join forces with similar-minded companies, it also allows a business to check out its competitors. “By looking at your competition’s Facebook page, you will get ideas of how to implement your selling strategy better. After building your company’s page, you can go through Facebook searching for businesses by geography, quickly confirming companies with which to align, ‘like’ the pages of paint companies, roofers, furniture stores or even interior decorators for example, and easily share that content on your own page.”

The most useful Facebook strategy is to dive in and see what others are talking about. Baer suggests “snooping on Facebook pages you like or checking out the postings of local businesses. See what types of content people are hungry for and what is getting a lot of likes or shares. Try to participate in conversations. By posting links to your own page and content, it gets you involved in conversations relevant to you and your customers.”

Not leaving out Twitter, he explained this medium is the most focused. “When you set yourself up on Twitter, whatever content you’re interested in, you’ll find a lot of people and companies who talk about it. If you follow those users, it’s easy to see what their opinions are, what they’ve presented on various subjects, what they are doing. This will get you into their circle of influence.”

Differentiate yourself

If you have a compelling product, do something in a different way, or if there is something out of the ordinary going on in your store or factory, social media can get your message out faster than any other marketing discipline. “You can take an iPhone, create some amazing video, and in 24 hours push it out through social media. Because you’ve built out your circle and connected with the right people, you can get that story in front of the right audience, hitting the big box retailers right between the eyes because you’re doing things they can’t. All they have are big, vast aisles full of brown boxes.”

The 12x factor

Warm market connections, also known as first generation or direct connections, have tremendous social media influence. According to Baer, statistics show that people trust each other 12 times more than they trust companies. “If I know a particular business owner, there is a 12 times higher trust factor on anything that person posts in social media,” he said. “And it’s great if I know you, but what about the people I know who don’t know you? By reposting, liking and/or sharing the information, that content is now on my page and has become something I’ve now posted. Now you have a first-generation contact.”

What Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest have allowed people to do by sharing posts, linking content and aligning with like-minded businesses, is to obtain “a first-generation access, the warm lead, as opposed to ‘I know a guy, who knows a guy, who knows a guy.’” Baer explained this is where the real power comes into play. “If you have any e-commerce functionality, even if it’s a consumer’s ability to look at product and make selections, someone who comes to your website from a social media site is 10 times more likely to buy than someone who comes to your site from a search engine. This is because the buyer has gone through social channels to do research and is now ‘self-qualified’ to buy.”

What the flooring industry is doing

The most notable digital marketing conception to date might be Flooring America’s FAST program, which leverages the latest technology in an array of social media platforms. “Social media is playing a bigger and more important role in the lives of our customers than ever before,” Spano said. “We have harnessed the word of mouth through our Where Friends Send Friends campaign and implemented it in the first and second phases of our FAST program.”

The first phase of FAST introduced members to the development of individual websites, while the second phase utilizes Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, CitySearch and Yelp to garner customer reviews.

Today, Flooring America has more than 35,000 Facebook fans at the local level. In addition, it has 85,000 Twitter followers, with whom Flooring America engages every day. All in all, according to Spano, the group has more than 14 million brand impressions all due to social media engagement.

“We’ve seen an enormous adoption of the use of our apps and consumers posting testimonials,” Spano said. “Now we’re focusing our members on executing this phase of the FAST program: how to ask customers for reviews, train salespeople on iPads and how to qualify customers.”

Angela Moore, president of Starfish Public Relations, believes a blog platform should be the heartbeat of a company’s social media strategy. “A blog allows your team to share the company’s culture, the business’ mission, case studies, testimonials, community involvement, etc.,” she said. “I work with clients to identify key people in the organization to develop the blog posts and we use social media platforms to distribute the information—much like cable TV channels.”

Moore spent much of her time marketing Bentley Prince Street. “We used the blog platform with Bentley to talk about its sustainability programs, spotlight associates within the company, and share videos from events in the community.”

Companies that develop a digital content strategy and commit to it will be the ones who emerge successful, she said.

Emser Tile joined the media frenzy in 2011, embracing various platforms. “We realized there was no escaping the digital revolution and after much experimentation, created one brand image to encompass all platforms,” said Shannon Rahimzadeh, sales, support and marketing, Emser Tile.