Join the Local Business Conversation with Social Media Marketing

by Jay Badenhope on May 19, 2010
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The other posts in this Online Marketing Toolkit discussed marketing approaches that have a longer history than social media marketing. So before we can talk about how to approach social media marketing, we will share some background on why this topic matters. Are you skeptical of the hype?

Your customers aren’t; they’re already using social media to talk about businesses like yours. This four-minute video (updated for 2011) shows some of the amazing ways in which social media is rapidly changing how we interact with one another, such as how online peer recommendations impact the businesses we choose to frequent. Social networks are not just for kids. A report from early 2009 contains data showing that the fastest-growing group on Facebook is women between 55 and 65 years old. Are you interested in reaching your customers where they already are? Great! We first suggest that you answer the following three questions.

  1. Where are customers talking about businesses like yours? As we discussed on the topic of search engine optimization, a great place to start exploring is from a customer perspective. Ask your customers how they learned about your business and where they go online to make and get recommendations with their friends about local businesses. You can also do your own online research.
    - Use search engines like Google to see where the most relevant and active conversations are happening online. Google Alerts is a great tool to get email updates on new content posted on websites, blogs, review sites, and Twitter.
    - Create a Facebook profile and search for similar businesses. Learn from the approaches similar businesses are taking to engage with their customers or followers.
    - Search messages about your business or business category and city on Twitter.
    - Many local businesses are discussed, rated, and reviewed on general review sites like Yelp and CitySearch as well as more specific sites, such as UrbanSpoon or BooRah for restaurants.
    - Browse question and answer forums like Yahoo! Answers, LinkedIn Answers, About.com, and our Start & Grow forums.
    - Focus on learning about customers — and how they interact — rather than on any specific site or technology. Look for ways to reach customers that set you apart from your competition.
  2. What are your target customers saying? If you were meeting a new group of people in person, you would probably get to know them by listening more and asking questions. Take a similar approach online. Get a sense of how people talk to one another before jumping in. One way in which this online world is different, though, is that you may see some blunt or even rude comments about you or your business that probably wouldn’t be shared face-to-face. It helps to have a thick skin — you’d probably regret lashing out at others online. You can also refer to this U.S. Air Force chart and this Inc. article about Yelp reviews for ideas on how and when to respond to comments about your business.
  3. What can you contribute to the conversation? As you listen to online conversations, make notes of the information you can share that you think people would find useful and relevant. You’ll know you’re on the right track if you’re thinking of value-added information, not a sales pitch. Real estate agent Kira Gould blogs about topics of interest to Los Angeles home shoppers, including practical posts like “Questions to Ask Home Inspectors” and fun topics like where to go for a great date.

Getting Started with Social Media Marketing

If answering the above questions seems daunting, don’t put pressure on yourself to figure it all out at once. But don’t give up either. Instead, set aside a limited number of hours each week to experiment with social media marketing. With your social media time budget in mind, here are a few suggestions of where you can get started.

  • Contribute to conversations where they are taking place. If you want to test the waters of social media with a sincere approach that limits your time commitment, an easy first step is to decide which existing social sites are most relevant to your business and then contribute to those sites. You could start by posing questions. These questions could allow you to clarify comments you don’t understand, get opinions on your ideas, or start conversations around your area of expertise. Then, share your expertise in existing conversations to position you and your business as a knowledgeable resource, including links to your business website as appropriate.
  • Bring the conversations (and better SEO) to your website. As you gain familiarity with social media, start sharing your expertise on your own website. An easy way to add publishing features to your website is by adding a blog. Just as Madison River Outfitters created a blog to improve its visibility on searches like “West Yellowstone fishing,” you can use your blog to write about topics related to your business, using relevant keywords in the titles and bodies of your blog posts, which will improve your site’s visibility in organic search results. By targeting relevant but more targeted keywords in your website content, especially in your blog, you can improve your chances of being found by highly qualified prospects in the “long tail” of search results.
  • Amplify your fan club. Having researched where your customers talk about businesses like yours, seen how they typically share recommendations, and thought about what you might do to set your business apart, you can encourage your biggest fans to spread the word. Did a customer give you a great compliment in person or over the phone? Ask them to share it online. Thinking about running a sales promotion? See what happens if you extend the special offer only to your best customers and the friends they share it with. Want to increase social connections with your customers? Add a link from your website to your page or profile on social networks. Above all, pace yourself, maintain a personal touch, and keep it fun.

Social media marketing is new to many business owners. Consider partnering with others to make your learning process easier. Dina DiNucci, owner of Park Place Coffee in Portland, Ore., finds allies in her business community by hosting groups of business owners at her shop for discussions of marketing ideas they want to test and other ways they can help one another.

Here are a few more resources on social media marketing:

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