How your business can use social media

Twitter and Facebook aren't just for college students — your business could benefit from using social networking sites.

By Isaac Bonnell

Everybody and their dog seems to be on Facebook or Twitter now, uploading a constant stream of photos and tweets and silly surveys.

But what about your business?

Most online social networks were created for people, not businesses, but companies large and small can still reap the benefits of being on sites like Twitter and Facebook. Networking is, after all, a fundamental part of doing business.

Somehow though, networking feels different online. It’s not the usual breakfast meeting or the after work social hour — it’s a product of the younger generation and it’s much more involved.

“Nowadays, people have to realize that there is no distinction between you as a person, you as a company, you as a father or mother — it’s all the same now,” said Derek Johnson, CEO and founder of Tatango, a local group text messaging company. “There’s no way to create a Facebook page for your business life and your personal life.”

Your business can, however, have its own fan page on Facebook that is separate from your personal profile, but it’s best to cross-reference the two so people can put a face on the business, Johnson said. Fan pages allow people to become a “fan” of your business and then that shows up on their profile.

“It’s making sure that people who like your business are spreading the word,” Johnson said.

More importantly, it’s a way for your business to reach an expanding group of potential customers. Facebook now has more than 200 million users and Twitter has an estimated 5 million users. The fastest growing age group on Facebook, once a service only available for college students, is now working people in their 30s, Johnson said. And this is something that businesses can no longer ignore.

“If your customers are all going to the farmer’s market one day, you’d better be down at the farmer’s market talking with your customers. If your customers are at the Bellingham Chamber events, you’d better be there interacting,” he said. “The thing now is that everyone is on Facebook and everyone is on Twitter.”

Johnson knows first hand the power that social media has to expand a business. His company has been on Facebook and Twitter since it first launched in 2007 and now has more than 400,000 users around the country.

For businesses, social media can work much like word-of-mouth marketing, except the results are exponential. One good referral is available for hundreds of people to see and that carries weight in affecting people’s decisions.

“Back in the day I think it was harder to give referrals because you weren’t connected with everybody at one moment in time,” he said. “Now it’s very easy because we’re more connected with Facebook and text messaging.”

It’s not advertising

Through Tatango’s constant social media presence and extensive local networking, Johnson and the rest of the team have become kind of the local go-to guys for questions about social media. By April, the staff was being bombarded with questions about using video, creating Facebook pages, and setting up Twitter accounts.

“It was all coming in at such sporadic moments throughout the day that it was kind of distracting us from running our company,” Johnson said.

So the team decided to host a two-hour seminar on the basics of using social media and why your business should do it. More than 100 local businesses, including The Bellingham Business Journal, have attended the seminars. Beyond the basics of how each network functions, here are some of the main points:

It’s not advertising. This is not a billboard — it’s not just a place to pump out your information, Johnson said. “It’s a place where you can react to information that people are giving about your business.”

Be interactive. Ask questions, respond to comments, try to foster conversations. “Instead of putting something out there saying ‘Special today at 5 o’clock’ say ‘We’re going to have a special today at 5 o’clock, what would you like it to be?’”

Give it time. Just like regular networking, it will take time to see the results. For Tatango, social media started out as a small part its overall marketing, about 30 minutes a day. “Now we have a full-time employee who handles all the social networks,” Johnson said. “When we added Alex Mittelstaedt, our growth went up significantly.”

Tie it all back to your business. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and your blog are not individual islands of information. “You want that all integrated together. If someone finds you on Facebook, they should also be able to find you on Twitter,” Johnson said. “And you need to always draw people back to your Web site.”

Tatango offers the social media seminar once a month and later this summer, the company will be releasing downloadable tutorials specific to each type of social media network.

Getting started

Social media caught the attention of Wes Herman, owner of The Woods Coffee, earlier this year. Within the first 48 hours of setting up a fan page on Facebook, the company already had more than 1,000 fans — some of whom were also posting photos from each of the nine locations around Whatcom County.

“The cool thing about Facebook is all the photos people post of our coffee shops,” Herman said. “In fact, the background of our Twitter profile was taken by a customer.”

After six months of getting comfortable with social media, Herman said, he is ready to test the effectiveness of these networks.

“That’s hard to measure,” he admits. But through a series of controlled experiments, Herman hopes to figure out the most effective way to use social media.

“One of the tools we’re going to use is a limited special on Facebook to measure its effectiveness,” he said. “Here’s the key to it: We’re trying to use social media to learn people’s habits. How far in advance do we make this offer? Are people so dialed into their social network that it will spread in a few hours?”

Next, Herman said he will add a photo of the special to see if that gains more attention. Then maybe a video or a review — the whole process is trial and error.

“The end result would be to have enough people connected to our company on social media to have a clear and concise method of communication with customers,” Herman said.

Haggen is also in the process of determining the best way to use social media. The company joined Facebook earlier this year and is still working out the kinks.

It’s new to us and we think there is an opportunity to interact with customers in a different way,” said spokesperson Becky Skaggs. “We’re just going to kind of see where it goes. We’re just testing the waters to see what it’s like.”

So far, the company has used Facebook to post photos from the annual Haggen to Haggen Run and to promote the arrival of Copper River salmon, among other things. Feedback from fans has been slow, but that is expected when just starting.

“We’re trying to talk to more people who have been doing this longer and get feedback from them,” Skaggs said.

The important part, Johnson said, is just to be out there on social networks.

“If you’re not on there, you don’t have a chance to interact and to hear what people are saying about your product or your company,” he said. “That’s really the crux of it all: getting to where the people are.”

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