Three years ago, Nicole Schuman was in the ever-expanding world of e-commerce. Working for a local telecommunications company, she needed a way to reach a specialized audience of consumer bloggers and trade publications.
Her answer, fittingly, came in a terse, two-word definition: Social media.
"It's pretty much free publicity," she said. "If you're starting a business and trying to become known, social media is the best way to do it [and] not pay for advertising and use resources that you may not have yet."
Schuman used blogs and Twitter to connect with experts in her field and to get her company's name in cyberspace. As trade publications and niche bloggers began to be joined by reporters of large publications, Schuman began to reap the rewards.
"Eventually the buzz works up the ladder and you will eventually pick up stories," she said. "That's how you get to your consumers."
While many businesses endlessly strive for new ways to reach their customers using social media, some just might not know where to start. By bringing new tools to her company, Schuman, like other early adopters in the Buffalo Niagara region, helped her employer embrace the trends of today.
Schuman used her experience at her first company to gain a position at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, where she serves as Web editor. She monitors cyberspace with Heidi Ofinowicz, Roswell Park's marketing communications manager.
Roswell Park manages a presence on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and -- for those particularly interested in the subject -- Oncologytube.com. Ofinowicz said the institute has a large patient following on Facebook and uses Twitter to connect with other cancer organizations and advocacy and support groups Roswell has never reached before.
Ofinowicz stressed the importance of being an early adopter. She said Roswell Park learned from being one of the first cancer centers to adopt a complex social media strategy.
"Absolutely," she said. "A lot of what we have done and learned has been through trial and error. You jump on it and you realize what they want to hear, what content works best, and then you get more strategic with it."
One place you'd think social media would be a foreign idea would be an accounting firm. But Emily Burns, e-marketing communications specialist at Freed Maxick & Battaglia accountants, has set out to change that.
The company uses an online daily newspaper, linked off its website, to keep clients up on the latest trends in the industry, such as how the recent Congressional tax compromise affects clients.
It also has a second site devoted solely for recruiting purposes, where people can go to find open positions, internship programs and a blog that talks about the area the company's offices serve. It lists best practices and tells candidates what it takes to be the right kind of job candidate.
"We just started it, and we've seen a lot of resumes come in two to three weeks," Burns said.
Burns said the company started developing its social media strategy by attending conferences. She said between 60 to 70 percent of employees use social media, from the high-level managers to entry-level accountants.
"It's interesting to see," she said. "Of course the level of individuals and skills are very different, but when somebody's excited about learning and understands the value of it and takes the time to explore tools and apply to a job and something like networking, they get really into it and they get really excited."
When Kevin Keenan wanted to get the Diocese of Buffalo into the social media world in April 2009, he wanted to get the "good news" to the Catholics and faithful of Western New York.
Little did he know that his tweets would eventually reach the halls of the Vatican.
That's exactly what happened, though, when Keenan, the director of communications, explained to the Vatican that its upper-case tweets could be seen as hostile to an American audience.
"They changed it," he said. "The Vatican press office tweets. So they're listening, [and] that's a nice sign when you can connect with the Vatican and they obviously read what we had to say and responded in kind."
Keenan took that early encounter and adopted a strategy that includes blog posts written by Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, videos of youth conferences and other events, a constantly updated Twitter feed and links to a Facebook and YouTube account.
"I am constantly looking to see what the trends are, how can we implement changes and how can we make sure we're on top of things," he said.
The most useful part of social media for Keenan is that feedback is instant.
"I'm looking at it now," he said. "You see again how people are responding. One woman who said thanks to the bishop for a Christmas card and Twitter New Years blessing. It does allow you to reach a worldwide audience."
And for Keenan, Ofinowicz, Schuman, Burns and others, it all started with a simple step: a desire to become an early adopter. Schuman said the attitude taken by early adopters like herself applies to any company, no matter where on the social media ladder they currently are.
"I think everything is now interconnected," Schuman said. "The content we put on the website is just as important as the content we put in a Twitter post. Everything is thought-out and its all part of a giant strategy."
"I really think just diving in and doing it, that experience really helped me because no one teaches you social media in school," he said. "You really just have to dive in and do it to really learn what works and what doesn't. The work you put in, your benefits are definitely worth it."