Social media: Where is the benefit?

Roman SchauerHere in Southwest Washington, it seems nearly everyone is on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. But most of those users are individuals. Businesses, on the other hand, have been much slower to embrace the potential power of social networking, experts say. For every local business out there working social media, there seem to be many others who aren't. So what is it that makes social networking a strategic success for some, and barely a blip on the radar for others?

In a national poll conducted by digital news company Mashable and small business insurer Hiscox, just twelve percent of small businesses surveyed thought social media was a necessary part of a strategic plan to gain (and keep) customers. Of those surveyed, sixty-four percent thought social media was unnecessary and had no plans to incorporate it into their communications strategy. Of the small businesses surveyed that used social media as part of their strategic communications, nineteen percent relied on Facebook, fifteen percent used LinkedIn, and only four percent used Twitter.

So it seems that despite everybody and their brother having a Facebook page, everybody's business doesn’t. And this low representation on social media represents an extraordinary opportunity, according to strategic marketing experts.

Roman Schauer, co-owner of Digital Marketing Department, said that companies working with the general public that aren't using social media aren't doing themselves any favors.

“If a company is dealing with the general public, there’s no reason they should be avoiding social media,” said Schauer.

However, as many of us well know, sometimes knowing you should do something doesn't mean you're ready to do it, be comfortable with it, or even be convinced it will benefit you.

“When I talk to a lot of people about social media, they look at me and say, 'This is a lot of work.' They don't see the benefit. And in many cases I'd agree. There's often not a material benefit – but there is a relationship advantage,” explained Russell Mickler, principal of Mickler & Associates and author of Simple Social Media.

According to Mickler, social networking can't and shouldn't replace other, more traditional marketing strategies, but is an important addition to the mix. And while many Southwest Washington companies don’t seem to be actively pursuing social media strategies, those who are do appear to be finding success.

At Columbia Credit Union, a Twitter account is a new addition that the company is testing out as part of its communications strategy.

“We viewed social media as a way to open a dialogue with our members and our community,” said Nancy Olmsted, vice president of marketing, adding that the credit union chose Twitter to start with because they “wanted to start small and make an assessment on time commitment and value.”

Many staff members at Columbia have access to tweet on the company’s behalf. Their Twitter account is monitored daily, and messages are posted regularly.

One of the key uses Columbia Credit Union has found for its Twitter account is to promote the organization’s commitment to community involvement, explained Olmsted.

“We often tweet about events that support local community organizations,” she said. “It’s a great way to get the word out for our community partners.”

Kevin Wann, owner of Pacific Lifestyle Homes, said that his company branched out into Facebook and Twitter as part of a long-term branding strategy, not because of the expectation of immediate return.

“We see it as a way to influence our network or sphere of influence, and to keep in touch with people,” said Wann.

Pacific Lifestyle Homes has its own Facebook page, but Wann also has a personal page. “Often,” he said, “I'll be on Facebook personally and piggyback off of a message from the company. I think people interact with people. They're more likely to interact with me personally than they are with the company.”

On that point, Schauer agreed.

“In my opinion, what makes social media work is it comes from inside the company, not the outside,” he said.

Using a client as an example, Schauer said Fazzolari Custom Homes & Renovations has a very active social media strategy.

“He [Fazzolari Custom Homes owner John Fazzolari] is not just effective because we produce content for him, but because (he) is very active in the conversations that happen.”

Fazzolari’s company Facebook page includes pictures from current and recent jobs, links to interesting articles, reminders of upcoming events and an ongoing conversation with Fazzolari himself – the most important feature, according to Schauer.

“He becomes the personality of the page,” Schauer explained.

This active way of developing relationships is the key to making social media work for you and your company, according to Schauer.

“[By engaging directly with your customer base, you can] increase touches with your ‘friends,’ who will keep you top-of-mind when they think about your industry,” he said.

Where to begin?

Are you ready to give social networking for your business a shot, but aren't sure where to begin?

Here are three key steps, according to Schauer:

1) Identify what it is you want to accomplish. This should be specific, i.e., more sales, attendance at events, increased website visits, augmented customer service, branding and name recognition, etc.

2) Choose the medium where most of your customers are. Twitter users generally tend to be younger. Facebook skews a little older; LinkedIn is both older and more affluent.

 3) Most importantly, think about content. What will you generate, and what purpose will it serve? Give it personality, show what separates you from your competition, and stick to it. Give yourself a year and see what you can build.

Develop a theme

Social networking can be very hard to quantify. In many cases, it doesn't lead directly to sales. But indirectly, it can exert a real influence over your brand positioning.

Mickler encourages his clients to test their impact by developing themes along 15-day cycles. 15 days is short enough to be manageable, he explained, but long enough to build some momentum.

“Decide on a 15-day theme that showcases your company's values and include a call to action.” Said Mickler.

“Maybe your value, what makes you different, is the materials you use. So one day you can feature your suppliers and the materials. Another day you can show a video that highlights those materials,” he added.

Whatever your theme is, Mickler said, give your audience a reason to keep coming back and a specific action to perform – clicking on a video, filling out a form, subscribing to your newsletter, attending an event, etc.

“You might not make money on it, but you compelled someone to do something,” he explained. “You can measure those clicks, or signups.”

Once you've got the customer participating, said Mickler, you can develop a stronger relationship.

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