The use of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to improve connections with your customer base has been documented in these pages in the past (http://webwholesalermagazine.com/archive/2009/0911_feature.htm), but there are also real life examples of how using these tools has helped build client bases, improve sales, and even aid in hiring employees. And as the social media space continues to grow, it's likely that more of these success stories will follow.
The most famous Twitter-related business success story is that of computer maker, Dell, which launched @DellOutlet in 2007 and currently takes in about $6.5 million annually in sales, directly attributed to Twitter, where it has some 1.5 million followers. While $6.5 million is small compared with the company's global revenue of $59.2 billion, it's still a significant figure, and perhaps more importantly, communicates to customers that it's on the cutting edge of the social media landscape (and thanks to that '07 debut, an early Twitter adapter).
Dell sends tweets to its @DellOutlet followers advising them of new or refurbished product launches, coupons, and clearance sales. The approach has reportedly put @DellOutlet in the top 50 most followed Twitter users; Twitter currently has more than 100 million users worldwide. But as is true of most social media strategies, Dell's Twitter usage is in a constant state of evolution. Stefanie Nelson, who manages Dell's Twitter strategy, told the "Twtrcon" conference recently that the company had discovered it had over 20 corporate Twitter accounts, with different groups using Twitter to meet their own objectives. Clearly, a streamlining effort was required. As Nelson explained, "Listening helped us identify gaps and find better ways of meeting customer expectations."
While Dell's research helped underscore the importance of customer engagement and personalization (a photo of Nelson or another employee's face to go with the Twitter account, not surprisingly, was found to be more inviting than that of a Dell logo), they also found that if a customer posted a question, "There was no obvious answer as to who could answer it. We ended up being the intermediary between the customer and the customer care department."
With the inefficiencies involved, Dell decided to launch a DellCares Twitter stream in May. In its first month, Nelson said, the new account had helped over 1,400 people. "The customer experience has never been just about the interaction with a product, or the news they read about you on a blog," Nelson declared. "It's a combination of all these interactions that create the customer experience. We're not done," she added, referring to Dell's overall social media strategy. "We'll continue to evolve."
Most major companies have devised strategies to maintain an active presence on both Twitter and Facebook. Typically this involves monitoring search results for the company's name, as Home Depot corporate spokesperson Sarah Molinari does for the home improvement retailer. Beyond simply answering questions or offering help, Molinari's responsibilities extend to the occasional tip or technique to help customers complete their home projects.
But social media success need not be just for business behemoths. Many observers encourage small business owners to get involved with Twitter and Facebook, partly because of their relatively inexpensive cost (put bluntly: They're free to join). Businesses without the financial and/or technical wherewithal to launch a dynamic website of their own can still avail themselves of Twitter and Facebook to communicate with existing customers, as well as potential new ones.
Thanks to its 144 character limit, Twitter posts can be either freeing or daunting. Getting the hang of delivering a coherent message using just 144 characters may take a few tries, as anyone who's tried to decipher, "bgsle @ ourstor nxtwk," can attest. On the other hand, simply posting, "Big sale at our store next week," doesn't exactly set a reader's heart racing either. Nevertheless, getting across personality and/or humor isn't impossible. Take the example of Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh, who personally oversees the company's Twitter account. On June 30, 2009 he posted, "Gave Senator Reid (Senate Majority Leader) tour of Zappos. He had five bodyguards. Because, you know, I could easily overpower four." Note that there's nothing about sales or new inventory in the post. Instead, it's a reflection of Hsieh's deadpan humor. Hsieh currently has about 900,000 followers.
Still, the main point is to positively impact your business, and making a favorable impression as a funny guy or gal will only take you so far towards achieving that goal. It still all comes down to your actual product or service, as well as customer management. Many airlines have realized this, with JetBlue commonly recognized as one of that industry's leaders when it comes to Twitter. The airline updates travelers regularly on gate changes, delays, and other nationwide travel advisories. Whole Foods Market not only shares sales information, but also emphasizes special events at its various stores, and even recipes. Most customers probably go to their stores for the sales (or, even better, out of habit), but the recipes help develop an image of helpful, friendly service, not just a faceless corporate giant trying to make its quarterly figures.
A lot of people find Facebook more manageable, at least in part due to the fact that you're not restricted to 144 characters. There's also the fact that active Facebook users currently add up to around 350 million. Many of the same basic rules apply, however. Simply noting an upcoming 15 percent off sale is a good place to start, but it shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of a company's Facebook outreach strategy. Again, personality counts. Humor can go a long way (as long as it's G or PG rated, of course), but even just taking the time to go a bit more in-depth with what kind of finds customers might make off with at 15 percent off can be a big positive. Emphasizing the "social" in social media can be key. Encourage customers to take photos or even videos of your event or store, and post them directly to your Facebook page, as well as to their own. Setting up Facebook online forums to discuss and debate issues facing your industry, business in general, or the economy can take on a life of its own, as can polls and other such add-ons.
A recent article on Mashable.com told the story of Palm City, FL based equine dentist, Geoff Tucker, who's used his blog, Twitter feed, and Facebook account to land appearances on such outlets as Horse Talk Radio, and HorseGirl.tv. "People do business with people who they're friends with. Period," the article quoted Tucker as saying. "And Facebook is a great way to get to know people. It allows people to see that I'm a person." Over the past year, Tucker said, Facebook has generated about 100 leads and ten to 15 customers.
The article also notes the success that SteelMaster, a manufacturer of prefabricated steel buildings, has had with Facebook. "It's steel buildings. How is that going to tie to Facebook?" wondered the Norfolk, VA based company's director of marketing, Michelle Wickum. Though an answer didn't immediately present itself, she said, "When we looked at the growth in Facebook and social media, we felt we had to get our arms around it."
By posting photos of customers' steel buildings on its Facebook page, however, SteelMaster emphasized its customer engagement strategy and discovered an effective new means of advertising itself to potential customers. The article says that even woodworkers and farmers, not normally in the market for steel structures, became intrigued after seeing photos on friends' and colleagues' Facebook pages.
A New York Times article late last year noted how Facebook had helped Beverly Hills, CA based cupcake bakery, Sprinkles, increase its fan base tenfold in just a little over six months. Sprinkles relies on social media instead of traditional advertising, since as co-owner Charles Nelson put it, "People are out there talking about your business everyday, whether you're looking or not. This gives people a place to come and speak directly to us."
Sprinkles posts a password on its Facebook page every day that can be redeemed for a free cupcake. By capping the number of customers who can successfully use the password (usually 50), it arguably drives more traffic to its stores, and a bakery is the type of business that, once someone has decided to enter, they'll often end up purchasing something, whether or not they've received a free cupcake (itself a low cost freebie).
For companies dealing in something larger, giving out free samples may not make fiscal sense. However, using Facebook and Twitter to note upcoming demos, participation at local fairs, shows, or any community outreach endeavors, can underscore not just a business's existence but also its interest in being a good corporate citizen. Winning the perception battle can be an important step towards victory in the marketplace war.
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