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Bruce Sturgell, director of affiliate strategy at One800ne LLC, believes that businesses need guidance when using social media to promote their products and services.
Bruce Sturgell, director of affiliate strategy at One800ne LLC, believes that businesses need guidance when using social media to promote their products and services.

Social media: Cut the commercials to connect

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Business these days is all about connecting with the right people, and increasingly, those connections are happening via social media.

An October 2009 survey of 2,000 small businesses showed that nearly half — 45 percent — were using social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to get their marketing messages to potential customers.

That makes sense, given that most social media sites are free and 79 percent of the companies surveyed by Opus Research advisory service Internet2Go and Merchant Circle had marketing budgets of less than $5,000 a year.

But bigger players, too, are finding the free sites — and Facebook in particular — a terrific way to connect to customers.

Skaggs Regional Medical Center in Branson, for example, launched a Facebook page in August. Skaggs has a variety of other ways to reach patients, including the use of a marketing budget, a Web site and several publications.

But Michelle Leroux, Skaggs media relations specialist, said hospital administrators came to the conclusion that they needed to be represented where people were asking questions such as which doctor to see.

“They’re asking their friends a lot of these questions,” Leroux said. “We thought (Facebook) was a great way to tap into that friend-to-friend communication.”

Bruce Sturgell, director of affiliate strategy at marketing company One80One LLC, said businesses of any size could benefit from a social media site presence.

“Everyone is social, using the social networks to communicate to share their dislikes, likes, passions,” Sturgell said. “It’s a great way for them to get out there and find people who are interested in what they have to offer.”

One80One, which opened in December, offers traditional advertising agency services and also focuses on Web development and social media relations.

Sturgell cited an example of a company that sells basketball shoes using social media to find people who play basketball or are fans of the sport or its players.

He noted, however, that successful use of social media to achieve sales or business growth requires more than simply posting information about sales and specials, and companies that only do that can be a bit overbearing.

“Businesses don’t have any experience with this. They know they can reach this wide array of people, but they don’t understand the difference between that and a radio or television commercial,” Sturgell said. “You have to be conversational. You can’t be pointed and just send out messages about your company, because that’s not why they go there. They’re trying to connect with people they know, share the things they’re interested in.”

Audience engagement
Instead, Sturgell said, businesses need to find ways to engage audiences. He rattled off a list of suggestions such as promotions, contests, games, giveaways or ways of soliciting feedback — anything that will make the experience more interactive.

“If you look at what’s successful … they’re engaging, they’re interesting, they’re fun. Make sure you’re interactive,” he said.

Weber Warren, manager of National Art Shop, said he updates the store’s Facebook page daily, and tries to keep a lively mix of updates. These might be mentions of a local artist’s accomplishments, a link to an exhibit, a reminder about First Friday Art Walk or even an art-related joke. Rarely are the posts directly related to merchandise.

“One of the things that I’ve gotten the biggest response for … is on Sundays when we’re closed and I do the Sunday morning tribute thing,” Warren said.

The tributes are links to videos – often found on YouTube – that feature works from a well-known artist and are set to music.

“It’s just music and a slideshow, but it still keeps our name in front of everybody,” he added.
“A lot of (new customers) come from Kansas City, St. Louis, Little Rock where they have competitors of ours in town. Us being a single-store mom-and-pop type of thing, hopefully their friends will say, ‘You need to check this out,’” Warren said. “We need to be more fun than the other guys.”

Timely topics
Leroux said relevance is something Skaggs has kept top of mind as it dips its toe in the social media pool. Leroux said she set up a personal page to see what all the fuss was about and to find out how people used Facebook. “I’ve liked pages through my personal Facebook page, and sometimes I have to let (the volume of a business’ posts) wash over me,” she said.

Skaggs’ social media plan calls for a couple of updates a week, sharing information that might affect people who live in the Branson area, or interviews with physicians or specialists.
The Skaggs plan calls for a couple of updates a week that share information on news that might affect people living in the Branson area, interviews with physicians and specialists on topics of interest or other health system news, Leroux said.

“It’s flu season right now. That’s going to be a great topic that people are going to be interested in,” she said.

Open access – or not
A key concern for some companies is that opening the door to social media has the potential of letting in a host of other problems, including staff time that should be spent working being squandered on Facebook or Twitter.

For some businesses, the solution is to completely shut off Internet access to social media sites, said Tyson Petty, account manager at Fouché Enterprises, a firm that provides information technology services for businesses.

Other businesses, however, are reluctant to take that step, in fear of alienating employees.

“There are more and more conversations about it. Owners are kind of sitting on the fence of employee satisfaction compared to turning it off,” Petty said. “To me personally, it’s kind of amazing that they would allow nonwork time like that.”

Petty said he often recommends OpenDNS, a company that offers Web filtering and protection services, to his clients. Basic Web filtering for small companies is free, but costs vary for more extensive services.

Businesses can enter the specific types of sites they want blocked — gambling, pornography or social media — and staff members will be unable to access those sites, Petty said.

"It’s so configurable, I could turn off radios, instant messaging, social media, but even if you turn off social media and want to leave Twitter, you can leave that one," he added.

For companies such as Skaggs, eliminating social media access across the board would cut off the ability to take advantage of the burgeoning use of social media for marketing.

Skaggs’ solution was to limit social media access to all but a handful of administrators, Leroux said. And even those who can use social media at work don’t have free rein.

“Our usage is monitored as much as anyone else’s and maybe more so. We are not allowed to access our personal accounts,” she said, noting that Skaggs’ Internet access has always blocked content that raises red flags to potentially inappropriate content. Some social media sites, such as Facebook, were added to the list for most employees to limit temptation, but Leroux said employees do have access to some social media, such as LinkedIn.

Warren said Facebook abuse hasn’t been a significant problem at the family-owned store he manages, and the 30 minutes or so a day he spends online has been worth it.

“It’s been better than I had expected,” Warren said of the response. “I expected it to just be fun, (but) I think it has brought people into the store that wouldn’t have come but they saw it on other people’s pages and came in to give us a try.”[[In-content Ad]]

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