It can be done—sort of—but watch out for the downside.
By Marc Hequet
What’s the first thing a couple does when they get engaged? These days, they probably go on Facebook and tell all their friends. And, of course, this newly engaged couple will probably need a tent for their reception. So if you happen to be in the tent business, you might want to know more about Facebook and other social media. Can you get a bucket in that stream? And will it hold water?
Yes, says Andy Moon, MFC, owner of Baraboo Tents and Awning Inc. in Baraboo, Wis. Moon finds “lots of different ways you can market with social media.”
In the matter of impending nuptials, Moon notes that “brides are the decision makers.” So he’s got a clear target for tent rentals. Facebook, the biggest of the social media with a billion users worldwide, accommodates Moon by letting him go after that particular group.
The same goes for people in other markets, such as those who fish or hunt. “Anybody who has those ‘likes’ in their profile,” says Moon, “my ads will go towards those ‘likes.’ It’s the most rifled form of marketing.”
Moon reports that his wedding tent-rental business is up 20 percent since he started advertising on Facebook two years ago. Is it a result of social media? He’s not sure. But he thinks there’s a connection.
Businesses are figuring out how to use social media for marketing. It’s not merely a matter of potential customers “liking” you on Facebook. It can also be a kind of “stethoscope to the market heartbeat,” writes Nilofer Merchant on the Harvard Business Review website. (Merchant is the author of The New How: Creating Business Solutions through Collaborative Strategy and 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era.) That is, you can get a sense of what customers and prospects are thinking. What’s the payback?
Specialty fabrics manufacturers are seeing some promise in social media—but haven’t yet figured out how to track its payback directly. “Sure, it makes the phone ring,” says Karen O’Rourke, marketing director with Lawrence Fabric and Metal Structures Inc. in St. Louis, Mo., “but as far as putting a dollar figure on it, I don’t think we can.”
In any case, don’t expect the world overnight. Nora Norby, president of Banner Creations Inc. in Minneapolis, Minn., says her business is relentlessly active on Facebook. Even so, Norby says, “I haven’t seen my sales increase dramatically, but it does give me a presence.”
If you market, will they come?
Social media are networks accessible by handheld devices as well as by computers. Think of it this way: Somewhere, a prospective customer is ready to buy what you’re selling. This prospect may not be thinking of you, probably doesn’t know what you can do, and may not even know that you exist. So this prospect opens an iPhone®, checks Facebook or LinkedIn® and punches in a certain key word: “awnings,” for example. There you are, with some nice photos of your products installed. Instant sale?
Maybe, but it’s generally not that simple. Social media require some thinking on your part. Andy Moon, for example, knows how to find prospects. But how do you approach these possible buyers? Coupons? No, says social media specialist and business consultant Yoon Cannon, president and CEO of Paramount Business Coach LLC in Doyleston, Pa. “People do not like to be advertised to on social media,” she says. “The first objective is to build a relationship.”
Instead of a hard sell, share your expertise, Cannon advises. For example, your posts might be about how to care for your fabrics, what fabric works best under various conditions, and how much energy can be saved through the use of awnings in your geographic area.
Ideally, if prospects and customers are sufficiently interested, they will sign up for your emailed newsletter (a better place for coupons), which is one verifiable indicator of whether a particular social media network is working for you. Cannon calls this “drip marketing.” It’s a key step in the process of what she calls the “know-like-trust” factor.
Once you have a significant number of “likes” on your social media site, maybe it’s time to invite them to that open house you’ve been planning. Of course, you should announce it through traditional local media as well.
Social media are “a tool in your toolbox,” says Charlene Clark, a social media user and co-owner and vice president of Signature CanvasMakers LLC in Hampton, Va. “I don’t want people to think that if you have a Facebook page you don’t have to do any other marketing,” she says.
Still, in contrast to traditional print media, when you post your open house on a social media site, you can readily measure the number of connections, number of comments, number of “likes” and the number of times people relay the information. You may never find out for sure whether any of your subsequent business came from Facebook or Linkedin, but these numbers can help you make some educated guesses. And, of course, you could make it standard practice to ask new customers where they heard about you and how they made their purchasing decision.
Here’s a downside: You’ve got to keep up with it and stay active on the site. For example, posting new photos of those joyous brides in their rented tents, says Moon. In any case, once you get out there, stay out there. Lawrence Fabric and Metal Structures posts regularly. That’s really not so hard to do, says Jerry Grimaud, president. “It doesn’t cost anything, but you need to be consistent.”
There’s always the possibility of going viral. If you’ve somehow managed that, you may have work orders piled so high you don’t know how to handle them all. However, if you’ve gone viral in the wrong way, you can be in big trouble. “Going viral” means that social media habitués that you have targeted send messages to others on their personal networks about you and what you’re up to. It can be a good thing: “Great product.” “Great people.” “Go here to buy stuff.” If people like what you’ve got, it may mean lots of business on your end.
But if someone complains, going viral may be what it sounds like: a disease. “Bad experience.” “Don’t buy from them.” In effect, the potential trouble with social media is that it puts even more pressure on you to perform. A writer for the online version of Harvard Business Review notes that “one angry tweet can torpedo a brand.” On your end, if just one grumpy customer is in touch with your whole social media network … ouch.
If you’re active on social media, you’d better make sure that you’re delivering quality and making your customers happy on every job. Fair or not, today people can complain faster, louder and wider than ever before.
Despite its pervasiveness, most businesspeople still have some learning to do about social media. Come up with a plan and see what works, but keep in mind that even if you use your social networking sites regularly, technology and trends keep changing, more and more rapidly. Make sure you stay informed on how businesses in your markets, and your locale, are making social media work for them.