Lots of my clients have brick-and-mortar businesses -- they run restaurants, bookstores and other companies that exist mostly in the real world. They've also gotten a taste of the many social-networking success stories, and they often ask me how they can hop on the Twitter and Facebook bandwagon to boost their bottom line.
As with any get-rich-quick pitch, it's not as easy or as fast as it seems. When you take a step back and consider your social-networking return on investment, many businesses will find that it's far more valuable to spend your time on traditional, proven forms of marketing than to devote your time and energy to the ephemeral world of the social networks. It's a lot of work, a lot of learning, and you can't guarantee it will actually bring new people in to your business. If you want more foot traffic to your store, stand outside with a sandwich board before you spend 6 hours on Twitter.
That said, there are a few great ways to attract new customers and keep your existing ones engaged -- while spending as little time as possible and providing the best return on the time and energy you invest. Rather than hiring a marketing consultant or tweeting up a storm, try these tips to get you started:
Forget about creating a viral sensation
Much like becoming an NBA all-star or selling your start-up to Google, creating a viral internet sensation is a nice idea -- but also an unrealistic pipe dream. So let's start by taking that off our list of social marketing goals, instead focusing on something more tangible and accomplishable, like increasing repeat business or getting a few new customers in the store.
Use Facebook and Twitter to keep in touch with existing customers
Rather than hoping the cleverness of your Facebook or Twitter page will make you famous, use these services to stay close to people who have already connected with your brand in the real world. Promote your Facebook and Twitter profiles (or, better yet, your own web site) on your real-world marketing materials, and give people a tangible reason to check you out online. Some great ideas: create web-only coupons and deals, or announce events online first. This gives people a valuable reason to engage with you online after the novelty of "following you on Twitter" has worn off. As every good business owner knows, it's cheaper to keep an existing customer than attract a new one -- and this is a great way to do it.
Make yourself known on the big directory sites
The Yellow Pages are old school. To get search traffic from heavy internet users, make sure you are listed on sites like Yelp and Google Local, where we find information these days. I've used Yelp to find everything from fancy restaurants to barber shops, and an established profile there can be a great way to drive new business your way. To some extent, you're at the mercy of your reviewers on these sites, but make sure that you have a profile, keep the information up to date, and do your best to work with the company to ensure your presence is as positive as possible. A sponsored ad wouldn't be the worst idea, either.
Reach out to new customers by partnering with popular sites
Once you've established yourself online, look into doing online promotions and integrating yourself with entertainment sites that will send traffic your way. Groupon offers "group coupons" for cool promotions in major cities, and it has introduced me to dozens of new businesses in the D.C. area. OpenTable allows me to set up restaurant reservations quickly and easily through the web or my iPhone. Selling tickets via EventBrite gives you an easy-to-use payment system and a forum to promote your event to the world.
Throughout the process, remember one thing: social marketing isn't free. If you or your staff is spending all day updating your Facebook page, you're doing too much -- and there's no way you'll see a good return on your time. Do the minimum to keep your online presence current, and use web-only promotions to drive traffic and keep your customers engaged. You won't get rich quick, but you'll soon proudly call yourself a social marketing star.
There are lots of ways to get social -- what do you recommend for your clients' social network marketing?
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