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Statistics show that only 35% of small businesses use social media despite the fact that their current and prospective customers are probably using Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and/or some other social media outlets to engage with businesses they like. Experts say that small businesses with no social media experience should consider hiring a third-party social media expert to organize and execute a strategy using the online platforms. Engaging with customers through contests, chat, information sharing and photos is becoming an expected practice for consumers and businesses must be willing and able to give the people what they want. For more on this continue reading the following article from TheStreet.

Facebook's (FB) announcement Tuesday of its new "Graph Search" probably has more than a few small-business owners scratching their heads. While the application makes searching on Facebook for similar interests easier and more relevant, the message to small-business owners is that being on Facebook -- and more generally being social-media savvy -- is no longer an option, but a necessity.

Social media was a dominant theme Tuesday during the Main Street Retailing Forum at the National Retail Federation's annual convention, held at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City. About 27,000 industry participants attended.

During the daylong presentations geared specifically to small and independent businesses, almost every speaker brought up the subject of how social media plays an important role in customer acquisition and retention.

Social media is still an area that both big and small retailers are learning to navigate, said Janet Viane, vice president of marketing at Sears (SHLD), in her morning presentation titled "It Usually Starts on Main Street. ..."

"We're still trying to figure out what to post on Facebook," Viane said. Sears owns Sears Roebuck and Co. and Kmart. "You take a risk when you're out there, you're very exposed."

She noted that only 35% of small-business owners use social media. But it's a necessity, particularly the opportunities to bring in customers through "check-in" technology apps and QR codes.

For some retailers, particularly brick-and-mortar retailers, social media might be too daunting to take on by themselves. With the lower-than-expected holiday retail sales numbers (increasing just 3% to $579.8 billion, according to the NRF), it seems even more important that retailers do all they can to get customers in the door. (Online sales during November and December were predicted to rise 12%, but fell short, climbing 11.1%, according to Shop.org, NRF's digital division.)

"Heading into 2013, consumers could continue to think twice about their discretionary purchases as they face decreases in their paychecks and other concerns with their household budgets," NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said in a statement.

Robert Klaben, vice president of marketing for Ohio-based Morris Home Furnishings, decided to hire a third-party social-media expert to help the company grow its customer base, particularly in Cincinnati, one of its newer markets.

"People are searching for you on social media, so you might as well be there," he says.

"I look at social media as today's in-store bulletin board," which is shared by more people at a much lower cost to the company, Klaben says.

Whether it's highlighting recent customers and their purchases, sharing videos of community involvement, offering sneak peeks at special offers, private sales, sharing industry trends, or giving fans special gift cards and other offers, Klaben's presentation listed 21 ways the company engages with consumers via social media, mainly on Facebook.

Tanna Dang, owner of Eden in Love and winner of the NRF's "This is Retail" video contest this year, says Facebook is an important part of her marketing strategy. The Honolulu-based boutique's Facebook page has more than 13,000 fans.

Dang says a few strategies helped her social-media efforts, including professional photos of merchandise and creating a "voice" for the Facebook page that is an extension of the store's brand.

Retailers and restaurants are the top two brand categories that Twitter users most want to hear from, according Richard Alfonsi, Twitter's global vice president of small-business sales.

Two-thirds of Twitter users are following businesses on Twitter to get discounts or deals, as well as exclusive content. Twitter users who see retailer Tweets are 1.4 times more likely to make online purchases, Alfonsi said during the Forum's luncheon presentation.

Twitter is "a great way to connect to users to their interests," he says.

Alfonsi concluded his presentation with some thought-provoking questions on the future of retail.

"What if the future of retail isn't about moving product; it's about moving people" into your store, Alfonsi asked. "What if the future of retail isn't about spreading messages, but having others spread it for you?"

He recommended some easy steps for businesses to get started on the social-media site:

  • Listen: Learn from what users, competitors and others in your industry are tweeting about.
  • Tweet: Find the voice you want your business to project.
  • Plan ahead: Use a calendar to schedule Tweets.

This article was republished with permission from TheStreet.