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We’re Talking About You: Small Business Discussions Via Social Media On The Rise

Local Social Media Marketing Provider Says Yellow Pages Are ‘Passé’

By Tiffany Rider - Senior Writer

November 6, 2012 - Businesses large and small are being talked about through social media, whether or not they have an online presence.

With nearly 900 million Facebook users and about half a billion Twitter users across the globe today, consumers are using these platforms and others to discuss products, services and brands. No matter what a company does, what used to be private conversations about them are now being made public by these social media users, according to Dina Mayzlin, associate professor of marketing at the University of Southern California.

Nate Trimmer, left, and John Zahn of Omnibeat help businesses implement social
media marketing strategies.
(Photograph by the Business Journal’s Thomas McConville)

“Even if a company isn’t doing anything, they are being discussed in social media,” Mayzlin said. “In that sense, everyone is on social media.”

Mayzlin studies how firms can manage social interactions, and that includes social media. In these social interactions, people talk to each other about products. Companies should consider how involved they want to be in these conversations, she said, as there are different levels of involvement.

With the advent of the Internet and social media, companies now have the opportunity to listen to what were previously private conversations, plus the opportunity to respond. “Everybody should be listening,” Mayzlin said.

To listen, companies can do a simple Internet search for the name of its product or service to see what comes up. Other tools available to business are notification mechanisms like Google Alerts, which report online discussions of a particular brand or product name via e-mail daily or weekly.

Beyond listening, companies can use social media platforms to create buzz, or excitement about the company and what it offers. Nowadays people explore businesses on the Internet, similar to conducting a background check on an employee. However, almost half of all small businesses in the United States don’t have a website.

Having a social media presence can be useful to those companies that are tight on time and money, according to the Facebook spokesperson who preferred not to use her name. Facebook Pages and Twitter accounts are free to use and have built-in audiences to promote content. “There is no right or wrong way to utilizing a businesses’ Facebook presence; every business is different and has different needs for their customers, so we encourage each small business to see what works for them,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Mayzlin offers this example: a coffee shop may want to have a Facebook page for posting messages and other content to promote specials, offer coupons or provide some sort of “status update.” These posts are directed to fans of the Facebook page, or those who “like” the company, and are then able to respond to the content.

Twitter is a social media platform through which users – in this case, businesses – can provide short status updates of up to 140 characters with links back to the user’s website or attachments with relevant photos or video content. Other users can repost “tweets” or reply to them, similar to the way a user can repost or comment on a Facebook page status update.

When a business user starts engaging in conversations with a customer, it needs to be done in a strategic fashion, Mayzlin said. “Once you have a social media presence, there are expectations that you will put effort into it,” she added. “The trickier part is making that content be interactive or being interactive.”

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When a business decides to use social media to interact with its customers and potential customers, a strategic plan should be in place, just as a company puts together a strategic plan for other forms of marketing, according to John Zahn, co-founder of Omnibeat.

Zahn has been a small business owner for 20 years. He established Omnibeat with California State University, Long Beach engineering graduate Nate Trimmer to help businesses tell their story online. Through Omnibeat, Zahn has helped businesses small and large understand the importance of social media and why it works.

In the past, the small businesses with which Zahn worked didn’t have a business plan or a mission statement, which he said should be prerequisites for launching a social media presence. “Social media is not a Band-Aid for developing a brand,” he said. “In reality, I think every business needs social media in some way because it is the future. The Yellow Pages are passé. You want to have a story and a message, and you want it online.”

There are three main steps to develop a social media strategy: review, implementation and maintenance, according to Zahn. “Though initially we would teach small business owners how to do it, it’s been too overwhelming. You’re better off outsourcing social media until you get to 1,000 employees.”

Different social media channels work better for different businesses, Zahn said. For instance, service providers like dry cleaners and restaurants tend to benefit from Yelp, a site that allows registered users to rate an establishment on a scale of 1 to 5 and provide commentary on their overall experience. “We do believe, though, that whatever channels you use, all information should be correct and accurate and has a uniform brand feel,” Zahn said. “A lot of people are scared of Yelp, but if you have all of your information correctly on there and someone does write a bad review, it’s about how you react to it.”

Evan Lamont, CEO of TLG Marketing Consultants in Long Beach, said his company looks at social media from two perspectives: its search engine optimization benefits; and its ability to increase brand approachability.

“Having new, fresh content out there and being able to generate new visitors to your website from a referral source like Facebook or Twitter serves as a good advantage for search engine optimization,” Lamont said. “It also gives you the ability to engage with your customer base. We found that it is a less threatening approach. People may be more willing to submit something through Facebook as opposed to giving your business a call.”

Ultimately, businesses want to tie social media marketing to sales, Mayzlin said. “If you have a lot of followers and you’re not getting more sales, it’s not helping you,” she said. “I think there are clever things you can do to try to tie social media efforts to actual sales. You can give people coupons. You can ask people how they heard about you. You can encourage clients to like you on Facebook. [But] it’s not obvious to say that Facebook yielded X amount of money a month.”

For many small businesses, social media is an opportunity to fill in the gap between branding and direct response advertising, according to Lamont. “When you’re thinking about sales, you think about direct response where you’re pushing them to the advertisement and hoping they make a purchase,” he said. “You can also have branding, where you’re trying to generate awareness about your company and hope that people, when they need that service or that product, choose you. Social media blends the two because you can brand and at the same time have a direct connection with the customer, client, student or patient; whoever it may be.”

In addition to her professorial work for USC, Mayzlin has helped some nonprofits grow their social media presence. In her experience with nonprofits, the goal was to increase the number of Facebook followers to increase awareness of the organization’s mission. For a business trying to increase revenue, Mayzlin suggests surveying clients to see if they have interacted with the business on its Facebook page or Twitter account. “Even getting one customer through Facebook can justify using Facebook,” Mayzlin said.

There are currently 12.8 million local businesses that already have a Facebook page, according to the Facebook spokesperson. “In the past few months we’ve rolled out new tools specifically focused on helping small businesses,” she said. “We know their time, resources and budgets are limited, and we’ve recently made it easier for a business owner to get on Facebook, find new customers, interact with them, and generate more awareness and sales.”

Custom audiences, offers and Facebook ads called “Promoted Posts” are three recently announced products and metrics that can help businesses promote their brand content and gain a return on investment. According to the Facebook spokesperson, more than 300,000 Facebook users have utilized Promoted Posts, more than 25 percent of which are new advertisers on Facebook. One such example is Sam’s Chowder House, a restaurant in Half Moon Bay. The restaurant attributes a 19 percent increase in both its monthly number of guests and monthly gross revenue to Promoted Posts, she said.

Lamont said he recommends small business owners’ social media strategy should focus on them being themselves online. “The biggest hurdle to overcome is to be able to get the platform set up and get proper images and graphics up that really reflect your brand,” he said. “Be yourself. Say what got you interested in the company in the first place, and be the local champion for your brand on social media.”