If your company is not into social networking, you may want to talk to your boss about getting with it.
From small cafes to multinational corporations, businesses are jumping into the social networking game, seeing it as the next tool to grow market share and stay viable.
In fact, social networking -- the use of technology and websites to communicate directly with customers -- is past being just an option. It has become a required business task. Either get in, or get out of the way, because nimble, clever competitors are using the latest smart-phone- and computer-based tools to compete.
But it isn't easy.
A company is starting a conversation when it delves into social networking, and it requires effort. Doing it right also requires that a company be as willing to listen as to speak.
Businesses reaching out into the new "social media" of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like are learning that using the tools correctly requires a willingness to hold up their end of the conversation, listen to others -- sometimes many others -- and be willing to deal with story lines that don't always cast the business in the best light.
"It works about as well as the amount of time you are willing to put into it," said Bob Syracuse, one of the owners of the Pizza Plant Italian Pub on Main Street in Williamsville.
The restaurant has been establishing a presence in Internet- and smart-phone-based social media for about a year, beginning with simple Facebook posts and text messages that let customers know what beers were being featured each day. Most of the work has been handled by Richard Syracuse, the owner's son, who recently received a master's degree in marketing from the Rochester Institute of Technology and is building an Internet portfolio. The elder Syracuse also weighs in, as do other restaurant managers.
For businesses that want to reach the online generation, a growing cohort of people who do not watch so much television or pay attention to other traditional forms of advertising, it is fast becoming the only place to be. According to a June 2010 report by the Nielsen ratings service, nearly 23 percent of all time spent online by Americans is spent on social media sites. That's up 43 percent in just one year.
The conversation companies engage in will continue to evolve. Bob Hazlett, director of online marketing for the Memphis Convention & Visitor's Bureau, said companies will actually evolve into another form.
"In the future, all companies will become media companies because they'll be communicating with customers through a variety of channels," Hazlett said in the Commercial Appeal. "That means you have to work on your message so that you'll be heard over everyone else."
Insurance company GEICO stays on the cutting edge of advertising, with off-beat spokesmen like cave men and a gecko, so it's no surprise the company is involved with social networking. GEICO has sponsored the NCAA brackets on Facebook, with a caveman making his picks. The company, which employs 2,200 at its Amherst service center, also maintains a Facebook presence.
But inviting an open dialogue about your company does carry some risk, said Bill Roberts, GEICO executive vice president.
"You'e instantly getting reviewed. You don't have to wait a year for Consumer Reports to come out. You're getting rated."
When much of your business is your brand, staying involved in the conversation is a priority.
But the challenge, Roberts said, is knowing what you're getting.
"The key question companies are struggling with is, 'what is the value of the social media?' It is evolving, and the sites are making changes.
"It's hard to measure. It's not as easy as running a coupon in the newspaper," Rogers said. "With a coupon you know exactly how many people cut it out and brought it in."
Over time, Pizza Plant's Facebook and Twitter postings have included more information, such as the live music acts appearing, as well as announcing beer and wine tastings, gluten-free pizza nights and fielding suggestions for where the next Pizza Plant should be planted.
"Facebook is not an enigma to me," Syracuse said. "I use it. Sometimes I wonder if I'm using it right."
Marc Adler, a marketing expert who teaches the craft at the University at Buffalo, says Syracuse is doing it right. Pizza Plant is among the examples he lists of area businesses who are grasping the concept of a full-time, and fully interactive, means of building loyalty and making customers feel like they are part of a community rather than faceless consumers.
Others favored by Adler include the Rochester-based companies Eastman Kodak and supermarket chain Wegmans. Kodak, he said, knows enough to invest real staff resources in the project, to the point that it carries positions with names such as a "chief blogger," who keeps the good word about the company and its products up to date online, and a "chief listener," whose job it is to monitor the Web for mentions of Kodak and reply to questions and complaints.
And Wegmans, he said, is only getting started on Facebook but has an extensive Twitter following. The supermarket chain builds customer loyalty not only by offering flattering information about itself, but also by using the immediacy of Twitter to inform the public of such things as product recalls.
"Those that do it really well are those who bring it all together," Adler said. "They link their website to their blog, their Facebook to their Twitter."
But, Adler said, it is not an exact science. Letting a Facebook or Twitter account sit idle for too long means losing the attention of old customers and the chance to attract new ones. Posting too often can get annoying.
"The important part is the engagement," he said. "How do you engage your customers? If someone writes about you, you need to know what they are saying and respond immediately. It's a conversation, remember. You don't keep a conversation going by waiting three weeks to answer."
The key, he said, is to stay with it.
"If you are going to dabble with these tools," Adler said, "then don't use them for marketing."
> "Like" me?
Robert Grant is a consultant for a social media firm based in New York City called Crowd Conversion. The name comes from the idea that the "crowds" that assemble themselves in various social media silos can be converted into followers, fans and customers by businesses that know how.
In a recent Web seminar, Grant explained that Facebook has 5.4 billion users and is a much better way to reach customers than search engines such as Google or Yahoo because it is more likely to be stumbled upon by people who are interested in whatever it is the business offers.
"The customers don't have to find the information," Grant said, "the information finds them."
People using Facebook can push the "Like" button on a business's Facebook page. Sometimes it is just an expression of support or interest. Sometimes it is in response to an opportunity to get discount coupons, free samples or early information about upcoming events that are only available to those who have clicked on the "Like" button.
When a Facebook member likes a business's page, all the people who are Facebook friends with that person get an alert on their personal pages that links to the company's page. And, because people who are already friends are more likely to be interested in the same products and services, those alerts are going to people who might actually be interested in what that business has to offer.
Each Facebook member has an average of 130 friends. And a business that finds 500 followers on Facebook, Grant said, can expect 65,000 contacts, often including e-mail addresses that can also be used for marketing.
"Use Facebook to turn your community into raving fans who will promote your business for you," he said.
Another local pioneer in the field of social media is Robin Wilson. Her Internet marketing consulting business -- The Wilson Edge -- grew out of her work at the other business she and her husband, Mark, still operate, the sign and apparel creator Buffalo Graphix.
"I've been in the marketing business for about 14 years, using signs to promote businesses," Wilson said. "In 2008, after the market crash, the old business wasn't doing so well, but I stayed very strong in social media and stayed in front of everyone."
Now she operates seminars and online instruction on how businesses can use social media, as well as more hands-on help for businesses launching their own social media pages. Among her most important pieces of advice is for businesses to recognize that the new social media are meant to be two-way streets.
"Social media is not about selling, it's about conversations," Wilson said. "You get people to trust you and then they will buy from you. Nobody wants to be sold to all the time."
Business owners and managers should let their customers and followers know what's going on at the business, not just new products or locations but problems with suppliers, prices, taxes, etc. Post pictures not just of perfected dishes but of the kitchen and the latest load of fresh fish.
"We're a voyeuristic society," Wilson said. "We like to see behind the scenes."
> Drawing a crowd
That reach-out-to-your-fans approach worked for one of the newest brewpubs in town, Elmwood Avenue's Blue Monk.
The restaurant's opening was delayed by a holdup in the process to get its liquor license, a problem that had nothing to do with the Blue Monk or owner Mike Shatzel, but with concerns state officials had with another business that had occupied the same building. A Facebook page titled "Let the Blue Monk Open" rallied public support -- and drew almost 800 fans -- providing an eager audience for the restaurant when it finally opened in late September.
"We just put 'Open at 5' on Facebook, and we had a line down the block to get in," Shatzel said. "Facebook. That thing's the best."
Since then, the Blue Monk has rounded up nearly 3,000 Facebook followers on its regular page, many of whom weighed in on the question of whether the bar should have a television going all the time. The ruling?
"We just kind of keep it off unless there's something special on," Shatzel said. "We have Bills games and Sabres games. But if people want a place with 20 TVs, they can just go down the street."
On a larger scale, Delaware North Companies, a global concern with 50,000 employees around the world, uses social media to connect with customers and employees. The company has a corporate Facebook page, several groups on Linked In and a company Twitter account. The company even has a social media policy and certification program to train employees on the appropriate use of social media.
> Catching a deal
It's not only neighborhood businesses that exploit the opportunities of free social media. Even those that can afford, and have, large advertising and marketing budgets see the value of the new online means of connecting.
At Wegmans, Erica Tickle is the Web content manager. She and a Web content coordinator keep the store's profile high on the company's website and Fresh Stories blog, as well as a Twitter account that launched in August of 2009 and has nearly 12,500 followers. Both the blog and the Twitter feed include contributions from Wegmans stable of chefs, green grocers and other experts, offering tips and recipes, responding to suggestions about what products to carry and where the chain's next store should be, fielding complaints and graciously accepting compliments.
"The purpose of all these tools is two-way communication," Tickle said. "The customers are engaging with us because they like us. We get feedback on how we can improve."
National Grid, the major provider of electric power to the Buffalo area, and of power and gas to customers around the Northeastern United States and Great Britain, also maintains active Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Emily Johnson, a Brooklyn-based Web marketing employee of National Grid, said one of the main goals of the social media operations is to get the word out about the many energy-saving ideas, programs, grants and rebates that are available through the utility and from elsewhere.
A goal for the near future, she said, is to provide instant information about power outages, and when to expect them to be repaired, on Twitter. Because many people access their Twitter accounts on their smart phones, they will have access to that information even when the power is out and their desktop computers are down.