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Embracing Social Networking Sites

Monday, February 2, 2009

Embracing Social Networking Sites(GIFTBEAT)Have you embraced 21st century Internet technology and begun using the Web's social networking sites to expand your customer base? If not, you're putting your business behind the eight ball, says Lynn Switanowski-Barrett, founder of the Boston-based retail consulting firm Creative Business Consulting Group. Read on, as Switanowski-Barrett speaks to contributing editor Sharon Bopp about ways Giftbeat readers can make the quantum leap into online networking.

Q. First, can you explain how social networking works?

A. Social networking is simply a way to connect to a [Web-based] community of people who have similar interests or passions. For example, it could be a community of those who love books or candles, or who have adopted Chinese children. Social networking is community based, and connects everybody so they feel like one large family. The evolution of a sense of community has gone from the town hall to the local diner to the Internet. Social networking can open retailers' eyes to new ways to market and operate their businesses.

Q. Why do small retailers hesitate to use social networking sites—and how can this hurt them?

A. [Often] independent retailers relate to talking about things in person, face to face with each other. When it comes to social networking on the Internet, small retailers sometimes say, "That's not who my customers are." Breaking it down into simple terms, what small business owners are afraid of is simply a new way of communicating. But as the demographics of your customers change, you risk losing current customers if you are not catering to them [online], and alienating new customers if you are doing nothing to get them [online]. Whether or not you like the Internet, it is here to stay. Having a big business and Fortune 500 background, I know this is a small business mind-set that puts retailers at a disadvantage. I can't tell you the number of retailers who stand in back during one of my seminars [on this topic], listen for five minutes, shake their heads and leave.

If customers walking into your store are between the ages of 11 and 30, they are probably participating in online communities like Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and more. Today there are 60 million Facebook users. Over 50% of them are out of college. The fastest-growing segment on Facebook is those over age 25. Sixty percent of MySpace users are women; 20% are ages 45 to 54; 17%, ages 35 to 44; and 15%, 25 to 34. Economically, 37% of MySpace users have an annual household income of $50,000 to $70,000, while 33% make $25,000 to $50,000.

With statistics like this, you can see that there are many potential customers for your store to connect with using one or more social networks! For you as a business owner to not use the biggest tool of the 21st century for business just handicaps you. You risk becoming outdated in the minds and eyes of your customers. I certainly wouldn’t want that to happen.

Q. How can store owners take the first step toward online networking and marketing?

A. The majority of retailers have access to the Internet through email addresses. If you have an email address, you can participate in a social network. It’s that simple to start! You can choose which networks you want to become part of, and then you can simply start “joining the conversation" that is going on via the World Wide Web. I would suggest that you engage in a network personally before you try it for your business. Once you feel comfortable participating, you can join networks that are appropriate for your business to belong to and to participate in.

To determine which networks those might be I would advocate a two-step process. First, understand who your customers are and where they are participating in community conversations on the Web. Then, decide how you can integrate social networking groups into the marketing plans you have for those customers of your store. For example, you can create a Facebook account that you use to post shots of store products, store events and customers using your products. It sounds daunting at first, but my recommendation is that you just start somewhere to see how it works and then build from that point on in the future.

Q. How can store owners "test" the incredible reach and power of the Internet?

A. Log on to and do a search for one of your passions. This could be a product or a personal passion. If I loved tennis, I would Google "tennis blogs in Massachusetts" and click onto one where somebody is talking about tennis. I think retailers would be astounded at how many people are "talking" about this topic! Once you join a blog with other tennis lovers, you have an immediate connection.

Or you might find a "mommy blog" where women in their 20s, 30s and 40s are talking about how to raise their children and what children's products they like. If you sell kids gifts, why wouldn't you want to talk to that group of people? What you want to do is become part of a dialogue, and [tap into] this new way of marketing your store.

Q. Can you lay out your four-phase plan for retailers to become part of an online marketing dialogue?

A. In Phase 1, you participate in an online community from the sidelines. You have to participate to become an accepted member of the community. Take the tennis blog. You could participate once a week in response to others comments about something—for instance, a racket they are using. Your comment might be "That was really interesting. I know what you mean." DON'T say "I own a tennis shop in West Virginia and can take care of that."

In Phase 2, you start a dialogue [or conversation]. It could be "I had a great game yesterday. I used my new racket I just bought, and I really loved it." At this point, because you have participated for awhile in the group, you have started to gain credibility with the community, and they will start to pay attention to your inputs in the “community.”

You continue the dialogue in Phase 3, and now a shift is beginning to happen. You start to become a source because you have been in the group for such a long time, and you have listened and participated in so many conversations. Note: Don’t make this shift too soon. You can't move too quickly from saying something to shoving your store in front of community members' faces. You have to make sure they're coming to you for information. If someone asks, "Where did you get the new tennis racket?" you might say, "From this tennis shop in town. They have a great selection of rackets." You still haven't said you own the store. Then, you get to the point where you write "Actually, I own the store." By then, you're an active part of the community. The key for all participation in any social network is that you don't just want something—you're giving something to other participants.

In Phase 4, when other members are seeking you out, you might say, "I heard this racket club is starting a new league, and they're looking for beginners." Or, "You guys should all come over to the shop. Mention our site, and we'll take care of you." Here, you're putting community members first. You're giving them information, and you're still a source for that information. This four-phase plan is ideal for retailers who are passionate about their products and what they do, and really know their stuff.

Q. What kind of commitment is required to become an active member of an online community?

A. You have to be prepared and committed to engaging in the community. The worst thing you can do is be fake about this. You have to be genuine. Show your personality or create a personality that you [can maintain] online. Realize that it does take time to establish community membership. If you check in online once a month, that doesn't get you anything. By the way, if you're not ready to do this now, don't do it halfway. Otherwise, you will come back in six months and say, "That didn't work."

Note: Switanowski-Barrett can be reached at (617) 437-9191; Want to follow her on a social networking site? Look for her on Username: @retailhelper

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