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  • Jenny Heinzen York

Social Media Websites Advance Businesses

ATLANTA - Social media continues to be all the buzz, and though some find it hard to identify a place for Facebook, Twitter and other services in business contexts, the modern reality is such that executives who close their minds to new resources are missing out on big opportunities to reach customers.
     At the Online Technologies Conference held here last month by HTT and its sister publications, several of the speakers addressed social media and ways to incorporate it into B2B and B2C business models.
     Mark Grondin, senior vice president of Shopatron, said 250 million users log in to Facebook every day, for an average of 55 minutes. He said the average user has 130 friends and is connected to 80 community pages, groups and events.
     But for all of that, it's still not a place where a lot of actual business is being done.
    "Facebook is not a mall; it's a party," he said, but it's also a branding tool, a community-builder, a great communication tool, a big traffic source, an advertising venue, an awareness builder and a decent source of analytics, he added.
     What it is not: A one-way communication medium for brands, a top revenue marketing tactic, a currency, an email replacement or a new search engine, he said.
     One of the biggest attributes of marketing on Facebook, Grondin said, is the ability to hyper-target consumers. Because people reveal a lot about themselves in their profiles, it's possible to specify marketing messages to reach people based on their location, gender, age group or marital status - and even to target customers who "like" your competitors' pages. The new Facebook Sponsored Ads platform is a good, inexpensive way to push out messages, he said.
     Grondin sees the future of "f-commerce" as being important, but not as a direct seller. It can be a huge traffic driver, though. For example, Amazon's traffic from Facebook was up 328% year over year in 2010.
     Twitter can be important for businesses, too, but it's more effective as a one-way communication. Facebook requires much more interaction to work effectively.

Social media at retail

     Robert Williams, the director of fun, experience, marketing, e-commerce and social media for Houston-based retailer Gallery Furniture, talked about how his company has used social media to grow its business and build consumer loyalty.
     Williams said although many people are uncomfortable with Facebook in business, it is so popular that it cannot be ignored. With hundreds of millions of users, it's also wildly popular among many of those users. In fact, he cited a study that said 47% of people have checked Facebook while in the bathroom.
     "You have to go beyond what you're used to," he said. "But we have to do it to make it work. A business is a leader because it once did something remarkable. It's no longer remarkable if you simply just do the same."
     Gallery has found success through Facebook sweepstakes and contests, giving away teachers' lounge makeovers and furniture to needy families. It has held contests to invite customers to visit High Point Market, or asked consumers to help the buying team select new products. All of these have helped boost its fan base and created a lot of loyalty among its users.
     He said some companies are afraid of the negative feedback they might receive on a social media site, but as long as the businesses respond in a timely manner, these complaints can actually become good marketing tools because all of your page's visitors will see how responsive you are to problems.
     Gallery Furniture has embraced technology in other ways, too, including offering live chat on its website from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. to answer customer questions. It also includes a QR tag on the labeling for each piece of merchandise to encourage consumers to get more information on a product immediately. Every sales rep carries an iPad for looking up questions, scanning codes, making notes, etc.
     Michael O'Hanlon spoke on behalf of CSN Stores, an online marketplace for furnishings that represented $380 million in revenues in 2010, making it the second-largest online retailer in the furnishings space.
     O'Hanlon reported that 2% of furniture was sold online in 2009, but that's projected to reach 5% by 2014. And while social media is just a small part of CSN's marketing strategy, it is an effective one.
     The primary return on investment for now, he said, is being able to listen to and understand customers better.
     He also said the incorporation of consumer reviews on a website can dramatically increase product sales, and gives the site a good way to monitor problems or get a feel for great products. And Yelp - though less well-known than Facebook or Twitter - is also a great way to monitor what consumers are saying about a company or brand.

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