Get real business results from social media

Learn how to develop a social media marketing strategy that actually brings in revenue, and see how to measure your success.

Can you tell which of the following tweets is from a small but rapidly growing company?

"One more glass of wine and I will b buying pop tarts from that damn vending machine for dinner, again"

"by the way, ignoring pre existing medical conditions=boon for cancer drug companies. Things r not always wut they appear 2 b"

"2 for 1 tuesday. buy any lrg specialty get medium 1 topping free. $12 value"

The answer: All of the above. The Twitter posts are from Naked Pizza in New Orleans, which serves pizza with 100 percent natural ingredients. As you can tell from the tweets, Naked Pizza uses Twitter to send followers special offers. The company also tweets to converse with customers in a way that mixes humor with social and health consciousness--qualities that reflect Naked Pizza's brand identity.

So far, Naked Pizza's social media efforts are paying off, big time. At this moment, just one Naked Pizza exists. By summer 2010, as many as 50 franchises should be open throughout North America, according to cofounder Jeff Leach. He credits Twitter with playing a significant role in the company's growth.

"If your business doesn't have anything to tweet about, you'd better shift into a business that does have something to tweet about," Leach says.

The mandate for small businesses is clear--set up a Twitter account, establish a Facebook page, and start talking. What isn't always obvious, however, is what you should expect from your social media efforts. Do you need a formal social media strategy? And perhaps the murkiest question of all: How do you measure success?

Social Media: Low Cost, Potentially High Impact

As social networks--especially Twitter and Facebook--grow rapidly, so does the business interest in figuring out how to exploit them.

Twitter had 54.7 million unique visitors worldwide in August 2009, up from 4.3 million in August 2008, according to ComScore. (However, some research suggests that Twitter's popularity surge has weakened.)

Currently, Facebook has more than 300 million active users. Some 50 million people joined Facebook between July and September 2009 alone.

According to Nielsen Online, the average Facebook user spent 5 hours, 46 minutes on the site in August 2009, far exceeding the average for the number-two online time-drain, Yahoo, at 3 hours, 14 minutes.

Marketers are turning to social media as a low-cost, potentially high-impact way to promote products and services. So far in 2009, 66 percent of marketers used social media in some form, according to the Association of National Advertisers. That's up from just 20 percent in 2007.

Judging from that data, you'd think small businesses everywhere were fired up about social media. At the moment, that's apparently not the case, according to a recent Citibank survey of 500 U.S. small businesses (consisting of 100 employees or less). The survey shows that 75 percent of small-business executives aren't using social media for business. They're hyperfocused on generating sales and managing cash flow to survive the recession, so things like social media outreach have fallen down the to-do list.

Nevertheless, small businesses that engage with customers on social networks can reap some rewards. First, however, you must set your expectations properly.

Setting Your Social Media Expectations

"It's unrealistic to think that because you join a social network, your entire business will change," says Ben Parr, coeditor of Mashable, a leading social media blog. "You have to find people who are interested in what you do and respond to those who are talking about your brand. It should be an ongoing part of the marketing you do. And like anything worth doing, developing your social media profile takes time."

Once you amass a sizable, loyal following for your Facebook updates and your tweets, you might expect to experience a number of benefits.

Reduced ad spending: Stanya Doty, the sole proprietor of wine and gift shop Simple Indulgences, says that Facebook and the e-mail campaign service Constant Contact have allowed her to cut ad spending by 75 percent. She admits that getting attention on Facebook can be difficult--but her Facebook fan base is growing. "And if I can get information out without having to pay for it," Doty adds, "that can only help my business, especially in a difficult economic environment."

Enhanced customer service and customer relations: "One negative blog post or tweet about your company can cause a lot of damage," says Parr. But you can turn it around by responding quickly to the complaint. Cable TV giant Comcast is the gold standard for companies that use social media to respond to their customers. When Comcast gets wind of a complaint about its service on Twitter, the company will usually respond right away to the customer, asking how it can be of help.

Valuable market research: Chris Lindland, founder of the quirky online-only apparel company Cordarounds, tracks what people are chatting about by using Twitter, viewing Google Alerts, and reading blogs. The blog and Twitter conversations sometimes inspire new Cordarounds products.

For example, Lindland knew from reading blogs and Twitter posts that a lot of active bloggers and tweeters are bicyclists. So Cordarounds developed Bike to Work pants, which have a reflective lining that, when the wearer rolls the cuffs up, provide nighttime safety. Cordarounds got the word out about the new pants through Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail sent to customers and journalists. Almost immediately, Boing Boing and Gizmodo blogged about the pants, Lindland says, and bikers were soon tweeting about them.

"Within a few weeks, we'd sold 500 pairs," he adds. "It was the greatest impact we've had so far in the shortest amount of time."

Lindland also tracks conversations on Twitter and in the blogosphere after a product launches, to get feedback. Cordarounds responds directly to many tweets, but always in a way that's personal and--in keeping with its brand--offbeat, Lindland says.

Improved search engine optimization: When you're creating buzz on social media networks, chances are high that bloggers, journalists, and other parties will link to your Website. External links pointing to your site--especially those from authoritative, relevant, and highly trafficked sites--can boost your site's ranking in Google and other search engines, says Adam Lasnik, Google's search evangelist. "Those links tell Google your Web page is likely more relevant and more important than others [without similar-quality links]," he says.

The ability to tell customers where to find you: A number of small, itinerant food businesses are successfully using Twitter and other social media to let customers know their locations. Curtis Kimball, who operates a mobile crème brûlée cart in San Francisco, often posts his location and flavors of the day on Twitter. Kimball currently has over 8000 Twitter followers. Twitter "has been pretty essential to my success," Kimball told the New York Times in July, adding that he quit his job as a carpenter to keep up with his burgeoning dessert business.

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