Issue: OMG U R on Fire!

How social media can light up the prospects for just about any business.



If your company isn’t doing the Facebook Fandango or the Twitter Tango, you’re not dancing to the tune of modern marketing. Social media isn’t just for playing online Scrabble and posting pictures of drunken college buddies. It’s the latest instrument in the savvy marketer’s orchestra.

“Literally all of our clients use social media,” says Co-Communications President Stacey Cohen, whose 12-person, Mount Kisco-based firm represents dozens of companies and organizations of all sizes in the county and beyond. “It runs the gamut from occasional usage to concentrated utilization where social media is their main communication portal.” In addition to web designers, writers, and videographers, Cohen’s firm even has one person on staff whose primary job description includes writing and posting “tweets” for their clients’ Twitter accounts all day.

For the uninitiated, Twitter is one of three major social media networks currently in use (although at the rate of change in the online world, there could be three new ones by the time you finish reading this article). The other two are Facebook, home of a half-billion online profiles and some of the greatest time-eating games since Microsoft included solitaire in the first version of Windows, and LinkedIn, a service on which individuals can post their professional accomplishments and network with potential clients, customers, colleagues, and/or employers. Other social media with business-building potential include MySpace, MerchantCircle, Ziggs, Ryze, Fast Pitch, and Biznik, whose snappy slogan is “Business networking that doesn’t suck.”

All these and more are online social networks that business owners like veteran restaurateur Isi Albanese use to build their customer base. His popular family restaurants—Bellizzi Mount Kisco and Bellizzi Larchmont—are perennial “Best of Westchester” winners and have a devoted following Albanese thought had room to grow. His strategy? Social media.

“I have three sons and I know how kids communicate now—through texting, through Twitter, and through social networking sites,” Albanese says. “They read restaurant reviews on blogs and have Facebook pages. So does my wife. I wanted to try it for my business.”

Albanese already had a website, but, under the guidance of Kristen Ruby, president of Ruby Media Group in Waccabuc, he added Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to his marketing arsenal. The results were impressive. Traffic to the Bellizzi website increased by 30 percent, from about 2,800 visitors in the third quarter of 2009 to 3,700 in the third quarter this year. The restaurateur used social media to introduce a brand-new product: Bellizzi's Spa Vento line of salads made with fresh, locally grown organic produce. Within the space of a few months, the new salad line accounted for an additional $4,000 per month in sales for the Mount Kisco restaurant. That’s a lotta lettuce.

Such results aren’t automatic, of course. Nor are they cheap. Although the media itself doesn’t cost anything, there is time required to set up the online accounts, not to mention the significant amount of time to produce content. A Twitter “tweet” may be only 140 characters—about 20 words—but coming up with something fresh, catchy, and relevant several times a day, 365 days a year is no cakewalk. And if you don’t keep your social media up-to-date, it can reflect on your business as badly as a window display coated with dust. Firms like Cohen’s and Ruby’s can help, but they don’t work for free.

It’s also essential to respond quickly to the feedback social media generates. That's, after all, the biggest advantage of the social media strategy: your business can establish a two-way dialogue with customers that reinforces your marketing message. When someone “friends” you on Facebook, you need to welcome him or her—quickly. That’s also the biggest difference between traditional advertising and social network marketing. Advertising is all about making sure the largest number of ears and eyes are exposed to your one-way selling message. Social media marketing relies on one-to-one networking in a series of two-way conversations. The two approaches—advertising and social media marketing—are complementary, not exclusive.

It’s a big old social media world out there, but here is an overview of the three main outlets and how Westchester businesses are using them.

Facebook

Facebook is the big kahuna of social media. With a claimed 500 million users worldwide, it allows business owners to communicate in numerous ways with seemingly everyone on the planet. Facebook is more oriented toward personal entertainment, but more and more businesses are using it as part of their marketing efforts.

Like many business owners, Lance Cerutti of Suburban Wines started with a personal Facebook page, then converted to a business page. “We blog, have a Twitter account, and post a lot on Facebook and Flickr, where we can display photos as well. We also send out a daily e-mail newsletter about wines we’re tasting, what’s on sale... The Facebook page is an extension of that. We try to connect it all together as the persona of the store.”

Cerutti’s use of social (and other) media mirrors the character of his 54-year-old Yorktown Heights business. “We have always worked with our customers to match wines with what they’re eating, what their interests are. We’re all wine geeks in the store. We thought the social networks would allow us to do the same thing.”

There is a lot to say about wines, so creating content isn’t difficult, according to Cerutti. Hard-core customers are also passionate about the subject, so they welcome the information. “We never post about sales or hard-sell messages. I don’t want to be in people’s faces all the time." 

Cerutti, like most Facebook-using businesses and business owners, doesn’t expect to reach new customers through social media. Instead, he focuses on building a relationship with his current ones. “Facebook supplements what we do. It has not replaced anything. We still advertise in the print media and send out our daily e-mail.”

Getting started on Facebook is easy, as is connecting with people who become your “friends” for a personal page or “fans” for a business page.

There are, however, potential hazards with online marketing, according to Jamie Nicastri, general manager of The Gym in Armonk. “With all the social media, I am concerned about how to control our reputation,” she says. “I try to watch how The Gym is portrayed on the personal Facebook pages of the employees. That opens up a whole Pandora’s box of legal issues. We have regulations in our employee manual on how they can depict The Gym and we ask that they not put our logo up there.”

Nicastri is a big fan of Facebook, however, and uses it as a large part of The Gym’s communication strategy with the help of Co-Communications. “We’ve had websites since we opened the clubs but we started about a year ago on Facebook. We have an in-house IT person who updates our website once a month. Facebook is much easier to do.” They update Facebook every week (if not more frequently) and combine it with YouTube videos to encourage frequent page visits by customers. “We might do a lower body workout,” she explains. “We’ll video tape that and post it on our Facebook page. It then gets picked up on YouTube and our website.”

The big advantage of Facebook is that every time a “friend” or “fan” signs in, he or she sees the content you’ve posted on your business’s page, according to Anthony Maucieri, owner of East Hills Cabinetry in Briarcliff Manor. “Facebook keeps us at top of mind for our clients,” he says. “It has substantially increased our referral business. Whenever I check the source of a referral, it’s almost always from one of our ‘friends’ on Facebook. That’s the power of it.”

Maucieri says he gets a lot of mileage out of Facebook’s visual presentation. “Instead of having to update our website every time we do a job, I can post the photos on Facebook. A lot of our clients are proud of their kitchens, so they send the link to their friends.”

Like most other things business owners do, success with Facebook or any other social media isn’t automatic. “It’s important to stay on top of it,” Maucieri says. “Time is in short supply for business owners, so it’s a temptation to let it slide. But if you don’t keep your Facebook page updated, it can hurt your brand—you look stale.” His solution? “To do a quick update doesn’t take long. You just have to write three or four lines. I link to a lot of articles online, which delivers something of value to the customers. That makes you a resource for the homeowner.”

Twitter

At first glance, Twitter doesn’t look so much like a resource for anyone as like a barely comprehensible stream of drivel inflicted on the Internet by spelling-impaired typists. But it’s not—really. Actually, Twitter is a promotional tool used by an increasing number of tech-oriented Westchester businesses.

To the cognoscenti, Twitter is a social networking and “micro-blogging” service whose users send and receive 140-character messages called “tweets” among their “followers” (contacts in Twitter talk).

Linda Rey, partner at Rey Insurance Agency, the business founded by her father in 1978, swears by Twitter, although she uses Facebook and LinkedIn as well. “It’s all about engagement and interaction, getting people interested and remembering who you are,” she says. “My Twitter name is @ReyInsurance. I tweet everything from photos to noise in my head. I keep it clean, civil, and fun.”

Rey does it all herself, spending about 90 minutes creating and posting content every day. That’s a significant chunk of any businessperson’s schedule, but she points out that it’s spread throughout the day. “When you think about it, before there was social media, you went to networking events,” she says. “There is the money for the events, then the time you spend away from your office or your family. The payoff is the same, too.” You meet people, they get to know you, then, hopefully, they will remember you when they need you.

“Social media networking is no different from going to an event,” she says. “I can’t afford to be the ‘best kept secret’ so we still do a lot of face-to-face networking at Business Council and Westchester County Association events.” She is also past-president of the Sleepy Hollow/Tarrytown Chamber of Commerce, is active in the local chapter of the American Association of University Women, and helped found Professional Women of Westchester, an organization for entrepreneurial women in the county.

The key to Twitter (and other social media) is the number of followers, friends, fans (or whatever) the business can attract. Internet marketing consultant Stacy Solomon of Briarcliff Manor says two good ways to attract followers on Twitter are to use plenty of relevant search terms in your profile and to use “hash tags” (the number symbol on the keyboard) before keywords in your tweets. “That way, you and your messages show up in searches by potential followers,” she explains. She also recommends scanning Twitter for conversations you can join. Your comments will hopefully create interest—and followers.

All that time in cyberspace has paid off for Rey. “We do get leads and referrals from people who have seen us online. I even wrote a business insurance policy that came through a Twitter follower located in Texas. We’ve written a couple of auto accounts, a retirement account, homeowners’ insurance, even a flood policy directly as a result of our online presence.”

LinkedIn

Business-to-business marketing has a place in the social media scene, too. Its current home is LinkedIn, where 75 million professionals, executives, freelancers, and just regular human beings are registered in hopes of establishing profitable relationships with others. The site’s more serious mission is reflected in less Twitter-like gibberish and fewer Facebook distractions like games and other folderol. It’s more like networking on digital steroids.

Dominick Crea started the PSP Group in 1999 as a payroll-processing company. Today, the Mamaroneck-based operation has 16 employees and provides a full range of human resource services including benefits administration. He’s a great believer in networking—face-to-face and online—and belongs to several groups on LinkedIn. “Groups” are basically online clubs in which people with like interests exchange opinions, advice, gossip, and all the other tidbits of communication that make the business world go ‘round. 

“I take part in the discussions going on,” Crea explains. “For example, one group member posted a question about overtime and how it is treated in New York and asked if other members had any trouble with audits. I just offered some advice based on my experience and the member loved that. He ended up calling me and I turned it into an account. I wasn’t pitching anything. I was just trying to help him solve a problem.” 

In 2008, Crea started a LinkedIn group aptly named “Westchester County Business Owners.” Today, it has 287 members who post information about their businesses, pose questions, and keep blatant sales pitches to a minimum. Crea also says the group is great for the master technique of networking referrals: “If I see in a forum that someone is asking about a type of service—say they need a printer—I try to put them together with someone I know in that business. It’s kind of a pay-it-forward thing.”

Whether they pay-it-forward or pay-as-they-go, more and more Westchester business owners and managers are turning to social media networks for very good reasons. “In the current economic downturn, business owners must go above and beyond to promote themselves,” says Rye Chamber of Commerce Secretary Sally Wright. The organization received dozens of requests for a repeat of its recent social media seminar.  She adds, “Social media is one great way to accomplish that.”

Dave Donelson is a successful entrepreneur and management consultant who “retired” to write full-time. He is the author of five books including The Dynamic Manager’s Guide To Marketing: How To Create And Nurture Your Best Customers and www.thedynamicmanager.com. On Twitter, follow him @davedonelson.