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The serious business of social media

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Print this page by Robert Burke

One of Erica Campbell’s tasks as a marketing manager is keeping her company’s ForRent.com Web site looking fresh. So when she had to pick between a couple of software firms that made bookmark widgets for the Web, she put the question on Twitter. Campbell tapped out a quick message to her 350 or so followers asking, “Which widget works better?”

Comments started showing up in just a few minutes. But what caught her eye was a response from a manager with McLean-based Add This, one of the competing firms. “He said, ‘Can we chat? Feel free to e-mail me,’” recalls Campbell. They traded e-mails and then talked on the phone so he could answer questions and make a pitch for his product. “He stayed engaged with me all day,” says Campbell.

Not surprisingly, she picked the Add This widget for her Norfolk employer. For Rent Media Solutions, which is owned by Norfolk-based Landmark Media Enterprises LLC, is an online listing service for apartments and other rental properties. “Other people at Add This were twittering me, too. I just thought it was a great form of customer service.”

It’s a business truism that anywhere people gather is potentially a good place to look for customers and to keep the ones   you have. So it’s no wonder social media sites — such as Facebook or Twitter — are wildly popular. Facebook, for example, has more than 200 million users worldwide, while Twitter has an estimated 5 million users. Both are growing fast, and there are dozens of other social media outlets.

Businesses need a presence there because those huge audiences can’t be ignored, says David Saunders, president and “chief idea officer” of Madison + Main, a Richmond advertising and new media firm.

In touch with consumers
But the approach is different than in traditional media. Print, radio and television ads let you tell the world how great you are. Social media, Saunders says, is more about just being in touch, instead of giving a hard sell. Plus, it lets people answer back. Some businesses are scared to give up control of their message. Why create a blog on your Web site, for example, and risk that somebody will say nasty things about your company? Businesses need to take the chance. “Whether you’re there or not, a conversation is taking place about you, about your products, about your service,” he says. “I’ll tell you what’s scary — the fact that they’re having a conversation, and you’re not part of it.”

That’s a nice pitch. And Saunders is finding a market in hosting “new media” seminars every few weeks, giving novice business types a primer on how to jump in. He chides businesses that launched a Web site 10 years ago when it was all the rage but haven’t updated it since then. Plus, he warns that social media is no place for weak products, because word gets around fast. “The mob will eat you alive,” he says.

Of course, before you can deal with the mob, you have to make sure it finds you. That means understanding how to please Google, the world’s most popular search engine. About two-thirds of the world’s Internet searches are done through Google, says Jason Moreau of NetSearch Direct, a Richmond-based search-engine marketing firm. When someone types in a phrase in Google’s simple search box, they get 10 results per page. Moreau says 90 percent of links that people click on are on that first page, and most of those are among the top three. “Your goal should be to get your business to page one, because that’s where people see it,” he says.

There are ways to optimize your Web site to make it more likely that Google and other search engines will find you and rank you higher such as choosing the right keywords or making sure that the links on your site work. Before business owners will hire firms to to that, though, they’ll want some proof that there’s a return on their investment. Micah Gaudio, president of the GO Agency ad firm, based near Roanoke, says almost anything can be measured on the Web. “Everything’s trackable now,” he says. “You can say, okay, I spent $100 on basically 100 clicks to get one sale. I can say that was worth or not worth it. On the other hand, you can get a lot of clicks without sales. It’s still the Wild West, you know.”

Tailoring ad options
Gaudio says that even though Google has a global reach, its advertising options can be tailored to fit even small businesses at a decent price. When someone searches for a kind of business, Google can tell by the IP address where that person is located and show them ads by local businesses. It’s called “geotargeting.” Gaudio says it’s “insanely the most beneficial thing to local businesses. Say you’re a cabinet maker — now you can compete with Lowe’s or Home Depot.”

For smaller businesses though, there’s the issue of time. “Who has time to tweet and then write their blog and then go on Facebook?” asks Gaudio. There are software tools that will link the content you update so it’s available on all three platforms, he says. “But people need to schedule their day because you can get lost in it. You’ve got to be quick and responsive, but you’ve got to control your time.”
If you’ve got the time, though, there are lots of ways to keep people interested. This spring Campbell’s firm, for example, hosted a “ready2move?” video contest on its Web site. It brought in more than 120 entries, and people were invited to vote for which one should win the $10,000 first prize.

Campbell says it’s not hard to come up with simple ways to keep customers engaged. She cites a Virginia Beach bistro called Croc’s, which has a Twitter following and sends out quick notes on upcoming events or menu highlights.

Campbell says she used Twitter and Facebook before joining For Rent Media Solutions and had to convince her new bosses that it was a good business tool. “This will help our business,” she says. “Consumers are going online. We have to be where they are.” 

Increasing use of social media
» 73% of active online users have read a blog.
» 45% have started their own blog.
» 39% have subscribed to an RSS feed.
» 57% have joined a social network.
» 55% have uploaded photos.
» 83% have watched video clips.
» 57% of Internet users are members of a social network.
» 93% of people using social media believe a company should have a presence in social media.
» 85% believe a company should go further than just having a presence and should also interact with its consumers via social media.

Sources:  For Rent Media Solutions, Universal McCann, Cone Business

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