Strategy Before Social Media

How can entrepreneurs use social media to increase their odds of survivability? Based on the advice of local experts, it comes down to first having a marketing and an e-business strategy, and then figuring out which social media tools — Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, or any of the entrepreneurial networking sites like LinkedIn, Entrepreneur Connect, or Startup Nation — can be used to execute your strategies.

While small businesses will continue to devote most of their resources to their websites and e-mail marketing, social media is more visible on their radar screens. But without first establishing a marketing and e-business strategy, which should be fundamental pieces of any modern business plan, social media tools will be misapplied. "Without a marketing strategy and then a concurrent e-marketing plan, you probably shouldn't jump into your social media strategy because you have to know what your content approach is going to be," advised Paul Gibler, the "Web Chef" behind ConnectingDots, LLC. "Your content approach could be executed through your website, which would be considered your free media, but it also could be executed through paid media, which might be advertising that you do on a publisher's site, or the search engine marketing you do at Google or Bing. It also could be partially through Twitter or Facebook or My Space or You Tube."

Today, pretty much any business has to be an e-business because of the new (online) ways customers find out about businesses of any size, Gibler said. He believes that traditional tools that help small businesses gain familiarity are starting to fade as the Internet becomes a larger component of the overall mix. In addition, the limitations of e-mail marketing are becoming more evident — Gibler calls this "inbox fatigue" — so businesses of all sizes that find ways to effectively target their e-mail pitches to relevant audiences and better control their frequency will get the most bang for their buck.

Enter social media, whose applications are now being tested as private sector experimentation continues. Since the business use of social media is not really an option anymore, Gibler advises entrepreneurs to start by "observing and lurking." Open up an account on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, and pay attention to what is going on and to what other people are doing. "See what it's all about because until you do it, it's hard to really appreciate the opportunities that are out there," Gibler said, "and whether they are going to work for you."

Some entrepreneurs have been very successful in using social media to generate business or leads or simply break through the clutter and get their message across. Ann Dalee, a public relations-social media specialist with Kennedy Convergence, a subsidiary of Kennedy Communications, said the tools should be presented in a cross-channel marketing program. "Usually, everything is integrated across the Web, so when you get Facebook pages and Twitter and blogs (to show thought leadership), you need to make sure your customers are aware of it because they are not just going to go find you on their own," she said. "So it's really important to have it integrated across all of your marketing materials, everything from your website, to your print pieces, to the sign up in your storefront that says, 'We're on Facebook.'"

Some of the best examples have come in the hospitality industry, where restaurateurs in particular have been effective using Twitter to generate business for special events or promotional meals. Gibler cited A.J. Bombers, a Milwaukee restaurant that is practically marinated in social media, complete with running testimonial and customer feedback "tweets" on its home page. Its deft use of Twitter has proven invaluable in building a community of restaurant devotees. Said Gibler: "What is interesting is that it's not just A.J. Bombers talking, but people saying things like, 'I went to A.J. Bombers and I thought it was a bunch of hype, but they really do have the best burgers in the world.' When you have people who are providing that kind of unsolicited endorsement of your business, that's really a positive."

Closer to home, Madison restaurants like Harvest have been employing Twitter to fill more seats at special events. Tami Lax, owner of Harvest, has used Facebook and Twitter to inform patrons about special events, nightly dinner specials, and menu changes. People sign up to be restaurant "followers" on Twitter (or fans on Facebook) and "tweets" about restaurant updates are received via their mobile phones. "We had a series of beer dinners for a six-week period last spring, and on occasion people who had reservations had to back out at the last minute," she explained. "We were able to fill those seats quickly by sending out tweets."

As for various social networks designed specifically for entrepreneurs, Gibler said they can be helpful in making connections and generating business. "Choosing the right one has a lot to do with what you do with them, and what you are looking to get out of them," he noted. "Are you looking to learn from other entrepreneurs? Are you looking for business? Are you looking for new ideas? What are you really trying to get out of it?"

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