EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 28, 2012

Small businesses find need to connect with customers by using social media

By Dalina Castellanos Los Angeles Times
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — It started with an injured rescue dog, $125 in cash and an old silk-screen machine.

Inspired by the dog, David, Donny and Darren Hendrickson used the money and the machine to launch an online skateboard and apparel company that donates a chunk of its profit to animal causes. To raise awareness for their endeavor, the 25-year-old brothers — they’re triplets — turned to Facebook.

Hendrick Boards managed within a year to accrue more than 28,000 “likes” on the social media website and has expanded to dozens of designs on T-shirts, skateboards and accessories. Facebook has enabled the Fullerton, Calif., company to find 150 shelters to donate to across the country based on its customers’ ZIP codes.

“It’s the driving force behind our outreach,” David Hendrickson said.

Using social networks to connect with customers is nothing new, but it’s continuing to grow. It seems like nearly every business, from Wal-Mart to the mom-and-pop shop on the corner, has a social media presence of some sort.

Nine out of 10 small businesses surveyed recently by online business directory Manta.com said they were dedicating time to networking online. More than 11 million businesses maintain personalized pages on Facebook, according to the Menlo Park, Calif., company, which introduced them five years ago. And new social media outlets keep appearing for businesses to figure out.

For those that aren’t savvy on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, the U.S. Small Business Administration and other small-business organizations are holding workshops to get them in the know. In addition, a cottage industry of consultants has sprung up to guide them.

Facebook has a digital classroom to help businesses develop eye-catching advertisements and promotions and build up their online community of followers.

“We know time is one of the most limited resources that small business owners have when they’re trying to run their small business,” said Dan Levy, director of global marketing solutions at Facebook. But at the same time, “word of mouth is the most trusted source of referrals, and we think that providing word of mouth at a much larger scale can be a really effective way to grow a business.”

Social media consultant Kelly Flint recently led a workshop in Santa Barbara, Calif., and said she was surprised by the large turnout.

“It was standing-room only,” Flint said.

One reason small businesses’ interest in social media hasn’t subsided is because sites are constantly changing.

“When major shifts happen, some business owners panic with the changes,” Flint said. “But they have to remember that change affects everybody. It sort of levels the playing field.”

Social media sites are fundamental to some businesses’ livelihood; food trucks may announce their locations on Twitter to let customers know how to find them, and new health spas can attract clients with a Groupon or Living Social deal.

Checking into a business through a social media site, such as Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter and Yelp, is the modern equivalent of talking about it with friends. But now the conversation includes feedback from the company itself.

“The business owners can react to what people are saying or talk to customers through their own page,” said Dina Mayzlin, an associate professor of marketing at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. “Social media gives a restaurant a second chance to gain a customer who wrote that they were unimpressed or the chance to build a deeper relationship with their regular customers.”

Businesses have a lot more to think about on social media sites than just “likes” and “check-ins.” There are tricks of the trade, such as how to word tweets, time posts and reveal attention-grabbing giveaways.

The practice of setting a schedule for photos and messages to be released to fans enables a business owner to set some time aside and focus on the other demands of running an enterprise. The trick is to balance traditional face time with customers and 21st century screen time over the Internet.

“They might know how to run their business, but business owners might still need help in how to utilize social media to its full potential” with minimal time investment, said Katie Washington, director of social programming for American Express. “For them, time is money.”

For Hendrick Boards, figuring out the best way to use social media was a bit of a rough ride until the Hendrickson triplets received one-on-one training from Facebook employees about best practices on the site after winning a contest from Facebook and American Express.

“We’ve grown up with Facebook and, yes, we are social media savvy,” David Hendrickson said. “But there’s so much more to learn.”