Just having a Web site may not be enough for business owners anymore.
The rapid advent of social media outlets has opened new doors for business owners and customers — and it’s a portal businesses should embrace, said a local consultant.
David Harris, who runs US eBusinessSolutions, advocates businesses getting involved in the social media world, before they’re dragged into it.
“Nowadays, the Web site is the starting point,” Harris said. “It used it be that if you build it, they will come — you build a Web site and they would magically find out your information. Social media has made it an interactive, participatory Web. People expect for you to be able to communicate with them. They expect that when they post something on their Facebook page or at you on Twitter, you’ll respond. There’s a higher level of expectation that you’ll be able to respond.”
For customers, there’s no more waiting on the telephone on hold or waiting weeks for a form letter response to an issue, according to Harris. Web sites, and now particularly social media platforms, offer instant feedback from customers, who also may be anticipating rapid responses to problems.
“It adds not only a level of transparency,” Harris said, “but it drills through the bureaucracy that we had to deal with in the past. It really creates an expectation you can reach anybody at any level in any company or organization. It’s empowering to the public that they can use the Internet to get their issues resolved.”
But businesses that had a philosophy of they’ll be safe if they don’t participate in social media run the danger of being dragged into social media — and on someone else’s terms.
“Anybody can create a presence for you on Facebook,” Harris said. “Anybody can create a listing for you on Yelp. Anybody can locate you on FourSquare.”
The best defense against that, Harris said, is a good offense.
“People will create your reputation for you on social media, and you will have no control over it,” he said. “I recommend that, more often than not, get out there and claim it pretty quick. Claim it and hold onto it so somebody doesn’t use it against you.”
Harris recommends a three-pronged approach for business owners. The first is defensive in nature. “Get out there, claim your listings,” he said. “Own your identity and don’t let someone own it.”
The second is interactive, where a business responds to intended audiences and its audience can share their experiences or photos with others. The third is the “Holy Grail,” Harris said, where businesses are proactive in their approach, doing such things as offering discounts for checking in on Facebook or FourSquare.
“It’s very feedback-oriented,” he said. “A lot of businesses get that. They say ‘like us on Facebook’ on their marquee. You can gauge your return on investment to the penny.”
The biggest concerns Harris hears from businesses about immersing themselves in social media are time constraints, including a worry that they can’t keep up with it if they are in their busy season.
“It’s a necessary evil,” Harris said. “It becomes a burdensome blessing.”
Harris urges businesses to enter the social media realm with a positive attitude.
“Never be negative on social media,” he warned.
The changing face of social media
While putting together data for a local political campaign, Harris discovered an eye-opening fact. There are more than 32,000 Facebook users in Effingham and one of the fastest-growing age groups using Facebook is over 60.
“Grandparents realize they can’t see their grandchildren, unless they get on Facebook,” Harris said. “The entire spectrum is logging on.”
Twitter has become a game-changer, and not just for business. It’s literally changed events around the globe.
“The guys who created Twitter really didn’t get what Twitter was,” Harris said. “They had no expectation it would be used to overthrow governments in the Middle East and save flood victims in the Midwest.”
There are differences between Facebook and Twitter, particularly in how outside visitors can use those sites. Harris likens Facebook to a walled garden.
“If you’re not on Facebook,” he said, “you barely get a peek. Google, for a lack of a better term, is the catalog of the Internet. Google can’t find everything on Facebook.”
Google, however, “loves” Twitter, Harris said. “It’s made an almost instantaneous feed.”
During the Savannah College of Art and Design’s presentation on Springfield’s downtown and potential historic district, Harris used Twitter to take and broadcast notes, rather than scratching them out on a piece of paper.
“So there’s about 40 tweets during that meeting, and they’re out there for anybody else to find,” he said.
Harris encouraged businesses and organizations to get on Facebook, because it is a known audience.
“It has an identity,” he said.
Businesses also can track how posts on their wall are shared around the Facebook community. They can use that information to do such things as select a Facebook friend or others to receive a gift card.
“It’s an immediately measurable and trackable promotion marketing medium,” he said.
Harris recommended using Twitter to announce what a business or organization is doing on Facebook. He also praised how the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office is using social media to connect with the public.
“I think they are a role model for police and sheriff’s departments,” he said.
The ECSO has done a “wonderful job” in getting the word out, Harris said, and he thinks the interaction has helped apprehend fugitives.
The opportunities are boundless for Twitter and Facebook in reaching current customers and potential markets, according to Harris.
“I can’t see the end of it,” he said. “I think at some point there will be some burnout. But we’re still in the exploratory stage. People are still using it to try new things. I don’t think we’re there yet. We’re still spreading our wings with social media. We’re going to find with everything new, there is going to be abuse and misuse.”
Harris even ran into an unusual situation with FourSquare. He had been “mayor” of his church’s FourSquare but discovered he had been “ousted.” It turns out a woman who had been going through a difficult time in her life was visiting the garden at Zion Lutheran Church. She checked in on FourSquare six times in less than two weeks, and those check-ins were enough to supplant Harris as “mayor.”
But it also showed the church how powerful social media can be.
“It was an opportunity for the people at our church to see how people not connected with the church are using the grounds for spirituality,” he said.
While there may be some people who view social media as a fad, Harris wondered if the same thing was said about the telephone or e-mail.
“Even if you think social media is a fad or that it’s cheapening your relationship with your customer, your customer using social media doesn’t feel the same way,” he said. “They’re not going to agree with you that it’s a poor way to communicate with somebody. They’ve adopted it. If you decide not to use social media, you run a risk of losing those customers who want to use social media with you.”
Churches and religious groups reluctant to use social media because they believe it’s cheapening the word of God could be missing out, Harris said.
“There’s another group who says you’re reaching people with that word of God who would not have heard it in the first place,” he explained.
Just how businesses can and should use social media is up to that business, Harris pointed out. They won’t know until they try, and Harris offers free initial consultations for interested businesses.
“Nobody knows the right formula for your business,” he said. “The best thing to do is to go out there and try it. As long as you’re earnest and honest, you’ll be given a lot of leeway. If you’re genuine on social media, people will respect that.”