Social Media Turns Customers into Fans — and Friends
Hundreds of millions of people log onto Facebook or Twitter — and often both — every day. Many simply check in with friends, share photos, and shoot the breeze. But a growing number of businesses are coming to see social media as an avenue for marketing, realizing that friends, fans, and followers can become (and remain) loyal customers. Social media isn’t expected to supplant traditional advertising, but, integrated correctly, it can be an effective part of a multifaceted marketing plan.
Log into the Facebook page for the Cruise Store, and you’ll be hit with a barrage of videos, travel news and commentary, restaurant tips, off-the-cuff surveys … and the occasional special offer.
“Our job is to keep our fans entertained,” said Don Anderson, who owns the East Longmeadow-based travel agency. “And we’ve been successful retaining customers and picking up new customers. The secret is in how the messages are delivered.”
The key, he said, is “just a hint of salesmanship,” which he likened to the little bit of alcohol in a weak cocktail. “If it’s all ‘buy, buy, buy,’ you’ll lose fans, and people are going to avoid your page. What you want is to make it entertaining.”
It’s working. His page boasts more than 1,700 fans, many of whom respond regularly to the tidbits Anderson posts. “When that happens,” he said, “you’ve created awareness of your company, and these people become customers, and recommend you to other people.”
That’s a classic example of marketing a business through social media, said John Garvey, president of Garvey Communication Associates, which boasts the Cruise Store as a client. He says that too many businesses still don’t understand the role of social media in engaging potential customers and driving sales.
“They say, ‘I have no time,’” Garvey told BusinessWest. “I say, ‘do you have time to talk to your customers?’ They say, ‘sure.’ Well, I’m not sure what the difference is.”
Another Garvey client, the men’s clothing store Jackson & Connor, fills its Facebook fan site with a stream of fashion tips — one recent post reads, “belts are for fashion, not function. If your pants don’t stay up on their own, come get them tailored” — designed to stimulate conversation, while promoting the Northampton-based shop’s wares without being too overt.
That’s where social media differs from traditional marketing; it’s most effective when it’s interactive. “It’s not pitchy,” Garvey said.
“Social media is certainly making it easier to communicate with people,” said Christine Pilch, social media strategist, speaker, and trainer with Grow My Company. “But keep in mind that, as a method of communication, it’s a two-way street. “Where Web sites push, push, push information,” she explained, “social media opens up a dialogue. If you’re only looking to put up information about yourself, you’re not giving people a reason to connect with you.”
In this issue, BusinessWest explores the dual phenomena of Facebook and Twitter — as well as other forms of social media — and how they’re not replacing traditional advertising, but allowing companies to integrate an exciting tool into their marketing efforts, all in an effort to create that all-important buzz.
Many professionals begin using social media for personal reasons and later come to realize its business potential. Realtor Lesley Lambert is a case in point.
“I started with blogging, which led me to meeting a bunch of real-estate professionals around the country who were using social media,” said Lambert, who works for Park Square Realty in Westfield. “I asked a lot of people how they were doing it, I attended podcamps around the country, and I started putting together a plan of attack, how it could best work as an entire package.
“I had been on Twitter, but using it mainly for personal socialization,” she continued. “So I started to slightly alter my use of Twitter, added a Facebook fan page to my personal profile, and updated my LinkedIn page, all to try to make a cohesive plan across the board. And I used the Twitter and Facebook sites as a way to promote and drive traffic to the blog.”
That, in turn, has led to an uptick in leads. Because oft-visited, regularly updated blogs tend to rank higher on Google searches than static sites, Lambert has picked up customers, both buyers and sellers, when Web searchers have stumbled across her sites.
“Most consumers start on the Internet now and do a lot of research, even before making a phone call,” she said. “My blog has been very beneficial there. It lets potential clients find me through a Google search.”
Lambert’s blogs have done more than get her name out; they’ve been sources of information for people in the market, from a series for first-time homebuyers to a niche blog on distressed homeowners — those dealing with foreclosures or short sales driven by job loss, divorce, or some other financial hardship.
“It’s taboo and hard for people to admit that’s what they’re doing,” she told BusinessWest, “and they may never comment or let me know they read the blog, but it’s a way to reach out to people in Western Mass. who are going through this, and tell them they’re not alone.”
Jeffrey Daigneau, owner of Lattitude in West Springfield, has used a Facebook fan page to market his restaurant in a variety of effective ways. He recently promoted — using only Facebook — a Horse Show Social for attendees of an equestrian show across the street at the Big E.
“That was very well-attended,” he said.
In addition, “we’ll put our menus on the page, and you can make reservations. We’ll put photos from events up, too; people like to look at themselves,” he said, adding that Facebook also allows for some cross-promotion. “We had our florist put up pictures of flowers he’s done in the restaurant, and he’s gotten more business from that as well.”
However, “we’re still trying to figure out the whole Twitter thing,” Daigneau said, expressing a common frustration among those who find Facebook to be a more effective way to interact with customers and attract new ones.
Aimee Campbell, blood bank manager at Mercy Medical Center, has found success mining new donors by becoming mutual Facebook fans with businesses that host blood drives, but also struggles with incorporating Twitter into her social-media plan. “We’ve had a hard time finding an audience on Twitter,” Campbell said. “I don’t think it’s the right medium for us. It’s less interactive; the comments are just thrown out there. Facebook is a little more interactive. People can see the locations and times for the buses; it’s right there on the page.”
Just 140 Characters
Still, many businesses have figured out how to use Twitter to get people talking and create buzz, said Kelly Galanis, a social-media expert and administrative fellow for Academic Affairs at Westfield State College (WSC). “This is a powerful marketing tool, and companies need to spend time figuring out how powerful. Some of them get it.”
One example is Friendly’s, which has charged an employee — in New Jersey, not Wilbraham — to engage restaurant-goers with dozens of tweets a day, soliciting comments about their Friendly’s experience, encouraging them to share about their favorite menu items, and keeping them coming back with contests to win gift cards.
Cable provider Comcast has a different priority, diligently responding to tweeted complaints and fixing customer problems quickly if possible, Galanis said. By trying to give customers a positive experience, the company is turning an industry negative — less-than-rosy perceptions about cable companies — into a plus.
Galanis said WSC is using a variety of social-media tools for marketing and outreach. “But we have a huge constituency — current and future students, parents, community members, alumni — and we have to reach out to each of those groups.”
That’s a delicate balancing act, she said, since prospective students aren’t interested in giving opportunities, while alumni don’t have much use for a notice on Facebook about Friday night’s party at the student center. All those messages are important, but the college (and large companies, for that matter) need to make sure the overall message is consistent, not scattershot.
“We’re working on a social-media policy for the college,” Galanis said. “People have to be on the same page, and it has to be something everyone understands.” In other words, it’s important to have different voices and fresh outlooks spreading the college’s message, but those messages need to reflect an overall vision of how the organization wants to present itself.
“These are important and valuable communication tools, but a lot of homework needs to be done before you get out there and set up a Facebook page or get on Twitter — especially if it’s a large organization with many departments,” Pilch said, adding that allowing multiple employees or departments to post material without oversight can lead to contradictory information. “If you’re sending out disjointed messages from various sources, it can be confusing and even antagonizing to the public,” she said.
Meanwhile, she reiterated that no one’s perusing social media for a hard sell, and businesses that come across as preachy or pushy will only see their followers dwindle. “It’s easy to unfriend, unfan, unfollow, disconnect.”
Surfing the Wave
It wasn’t that long ago, Garvey said, when businesses solely looked to the yellow pages or other traditional means of marketing, and when Internet marketing was talked about mainly in terms of shopping carts and e-commerce.
But now, it’s about an online conversation that businesses can craft using social media — and they’re increasingly learning that they must. On his computer screen, he called up one area company’s Google Pages listing (of which it was apparently unaware) and scrolled down one negative comment after another about poor customer service.
“We’re talking about a conversation,” he said. “And there may already be conversations going on about you.”
Like the Cruise Store, Jackson & Connor, Friendly’s, and so many others, business owners are increasingly listening in and shaping the direction of the buzz — if for no other reason than the 130,000-plus Facebook users age 18 and up within 25 miles of Springfield, a number that’s constantly growing.
“That’s a good-sized audience. That’s the size of a major newspaper,” Garvey said. “And they’re spending an average of five-plus hours a month on Facebook. They’re not doing that with the Sunday paper.”
Which is why social media is an ideal complement to traditional print and TV advertising, he explained, not its replacement. Many companies are using those types of ads to get readers’ and viewers’ attention while driving traffic to their Facebook and Twitter sites to continue the dialogue.
“Traditional media is not going away,” Garvey said. “Print ads are the beginning, and you can tell the rest of the story with a social-media platform. In the middle somewhere is engagement — having that conversation, touching fans.”
As for Lambert, in addition to encouraging feedback and give and take through her social-media channels, she has strived to meet many of her online contacts in person. “I make an effort to meet them face to face, whether it’s at a tweetup, going out to lunch, whatever works,” she said. “I’ve made some new friends, as well as some people who need my aid as a real-estate agent.”
Again, doing business is all about making connections. That’s always been true — even if the marketing tools have changed.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at email@example.com