Social Media Can Help You Grow
By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.
Businesses large and small are taking advantage of social media Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter to boost their marketing, and your propane business can benefit as well.
Social media refers to online services where users create the content themselves, rather than relying on traditional publishers. Blogging, Internet forums, and sharing of photos and videos are core social media activities.
During the last 10 years, social media has transformed from a techie playground to a mainstream staple that millions of Americans use daily. The dominant site, Facebook, has 104 million users in the United States, and a recent Nielsen Co. report stated that Americans devote 17 percent of all their Internet time to social networks. Facebook registration has been increasing by about 250,000 per day since 2007.
Demographically, social media are highly relevant to home comfort businesses. Facebook reports that its fastest growth is in the 35-to-54 age bracket (276% growth in 2008), followed by the 55-plus bracket (194% growth in 2008). Fifty-eight percent of Facebook users have a household income of $60,000 or more.
Many of your customers and prospects use social media every day, and you can put a lot of distance between yourself and the competition and bolster customer recruitment with an effective social media presence.
Social media is not a panacea. It helps you only as an extension of a strong online presence. It amplifies the company image you portray on your website and newsletters and serves as a traffic driver for your site.
A site like Facebook might be the first point of contact between you and a prospect - and it might even provide a ringing endorsement - but the prospect's logical next step is a visit to your Web site. You need an attractive, informative site that conveys your expertise and intelligence to reinforce the positive impression they formed of you on Facebook. With a substandard site - or no site - the time you invest in social media is wasted.
The Key Site Is Facebook
Facebook is the first social media site where you need to be, because it is the largest and the most relevant to your customer base. YouTube can also be very helpful, because you can post topical videos about home comfort that demonstrate your expertise and friendliness and attract attention. A note of caution on YouTube: Professional video production makes a big difference. Without it, you risk looking like an amateur and damaging your credibility.
MySpace is similar to Facebook, but the demographic is younger and less wealthy, and its credibility is considerably lower.
Twitter has been getting a lot of press lately, and it definitely can deliver results for certain local businesses. The New York Times recently highlighted how Twitter boosted sales for a San Francisco entrepreneur who sells creme brulee from a pushcart. He has more than 5,400 people following him on Twitter, and he posts his locations and his daily specials every day so his "followers" can find him. "Tweeting" has worked so well that he recently quit his day job as a carpenter to keep up with the demand.
Twitter is a different kind of animal from the other social media sites. All posts are limited to 140 characters, because it was designed with mobile phone text messages in mind. It is best known as the place where you can hear every idle thought of celebrities like Ashton Kutcher.
It is hard to imagine propane dealers getting mileage our of Twitter posts. "Tweeting" about what's for sale is acceptable when you're an itinerant crème brûlée vendor, but a propane company has no built-in reason to send frequent updates. You could tweet about price fluctuations, but then you'd be focusing people on price - not to mention boring them.
Propane companies should not use any of these sites for sales pitches. Social media is all about voluntary associations. With one click of a mouse, a user can become a Facebook "fan" of your company, and they can end the association just as quickly. The goal is to build affinity, so it's all about what you say - and what you don't say. If people think you're just trying to sell, they will "unfriend" you. The key is to step back from selling and focus on crafting a positive image that fans and followers can embrace.
You can get started by posting a Facebook page and alerting your customers through your newsletter and other marketing channels that you're on Facebook and encouraging them to sign up as fans. If a few hundred of your customers become fans, your venture is already a success.
You can grow your Facebook following by posting updates and links that reflect well on the company. For example, if you are an industry news junkie who reads energy-related stories online, you can post hyperlinks on your Facebook page. Every time you post a new link, your fans will get an update on their Facebook page that includes the link and whatever you wrote about it. By posting relevant, interesting stories, you craft an image as a smart company that believes in informing its customers.
If your service team is fond of a new boiler model that you sell, you can post a link to the manufacturer's Web site with a brief message about why you like that system. That could be an effective way to get customers thinking about the value of upgrading. Please be careful, however: Some manufacturers' sites contain "Find a contractor near you" searches or even links to your competitors' sites. Check any site before you post a link so you don't inadvertently drive prospects or customers into your competitors' hands.
Prospects Are the Key
Enhancing your image with a small portion of your customer base is nice, but your big payoff will be with prospects. Facebook is an important, trusted resource for users, because it's a place where they can elicit good advice from friends. If a Facebook user needed to find a new dentist, for example, they might turn to Facebook the way people used to turn to the Yellow Pages. By simply updating their status to say, "I'm looking for a new dentist in the Smithville area. Any suggestions?" they would expect to get good recommendations from friends - and quickly.
As such, Facebook is a vital center of influence - word of mouth on steroids, if you will. If a Facebook user in your area was looking for a new propane supplier, they might broadcast a message to that effect, and one of their Facebook friends who is a customer of yours might recommend you. The prospect would then probably do a Facebook search on your company name, which would yield a directory listing including your company name, the display image you have chosen and - most importantly - your fan count. If you have a few hundred fans (an excellent number for a business like yours), the prospective customer has a strong signal about you - like a modern-day Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
Facebook looks like a solid brand that will only become more influential with time, so its referral potential is likely to grow. Your best strategy is to create a company page, post updates regularly and judiciously, and build your fan base.
Twitter, on the other hand, will probably never have the kind of relevance for propane that Facebook does. In fact, Barron's reported in September that Twitter usage appeared to have peaked, and Nielsen Co. reported in April that 60% of U.S. Twitter users fail to return after one month.
It's hard to imagine a propane dealer using a string of 140-character messages to build customer loyalty and attract new business. In fact, the most applicable use might be in tracking Twitter messages rather than creating them. You can find applications that track Twitter postings and then alert you when your terms appear. By monitoring "propane" and similar terms, you might be able to spot a user seeking advice on propane in your area and reach out to them. You might also learn ahead of the competition that a local company is going under or having customer service problems.
Act Your Age
On any social media site, it is vital to comport yourself well. These media may have a spontaneous feel, but you should not rely on spontaneity in your postings. Instead, develop strategy and ground rules before you begin so that all your postings support your goals and enhance your image.
When you put yourself out there in social media, you create a new and public forum where customers can criticize your company and your industry. This is not something a good company should fear, because you can turn it to your advantage. If a customer posts a complaint on your Facebook page, you can contact them, resolve the problem, then post a response about what you did. They might even follow up with a favorable comment on your page. Rather than detract from your image, an exchange like that demonstrates your company's good nature.
If a disgruntled customer attacks you unfairly, and they won't change their tune, you can remove their comments and block them from posting again. If you are concerned about this happening often, you might want to focus on improving customer service before launching your social media campaign.
On balance, though, smart use of social media will strengthen your business, give you a helpful leg up on the competition, and improve your chances of growing your customer base. If you have any questions about how to get the most out of social media, please give me a call.
Richard Rutigliano is President of PriMedia, Inc., a full service marketing and communications firm with offices in New York City, Long Island and Boston. The company is now offering free marketing consultations to Oilheat retailers. Phone: 800-796-3342, or visit their Web sites at www.primediany.com and www.propane-advertising.com.