Tweet, blog, post, friend. What's a business to do?

Word-of-mouth communication is really what the new forms of social media are promoting.

Tweet, blog, post and friend are verbs with new meaning in social marketing in 2010. They are a new part of our vocabulary and one that we should be able to relate to.

Before the turn of the century, one of the more effective means of communicating with customers was word-of-mouth. Savvy marketers used positive comments about their business in some creative ways. Some firms used testimonials from real clients. Other creative companies held open houses or special events to draw in potential customers while rewarding some loyal ones. Other firms held competitions and posted photographs of “winners” who used their products.

In the past, person-to-person communication worked relatively well. People learned about new businesses from their friends who just discovered the company or location, probably from hearing about it from another friend. People learned about new products from seeing their friends have one, or by seeing people they would like to emulate have one. While word-of-mouth wasn’t the only source of information, it was a major part. Often considered more credible than paid advertising, it reinforced many of the messages that marketers were trying to convey.

Customers and would-be-customers are still talking to each other, influencing many of the products that are purchased, eaten, worn, read, driven and listened to. They are just talking in a different way.


Websites
First consider what your company’s website looks like. If it is an old billboard site with the hours of operation or specials as highlights, go no further into social marketing. I’m a huge proponent of a great (do not read this as slow to load or busy with lots of photos) website.

I’ve shared the Stanford Guidelines for Credible Websites at several industry talks and strongly endorse all websites follow them. Customers should know how to contact your company including telephone number, email and physical address or location (with a link to a map) on every page. Content should be current and updated weekly during the busy season and at least every two weeks after that. Whether you host in-house or sub-contract, strive to have a current website that is useful to your customers and potential customers before venturing into other forms of electronic communication.


Blogs
Blogs provide a two-way communication opportunity.

You write “stuff” and add photos or links. You might ask readers to sign up so they can receive an email to know when you’ve posted a new entry to your blog. They can also post comments about what you wrote.

Some folks who are committed to regularly updating their blog have a large following. Debra Silver at Detroit Garden works in Sylvan Lake, Mich., has a great blog called Dirt Simple. Texas A&M University ag economist Charlie Hall has a great blog called Making Cents of Green Industry Economics.

The key to successful blogging is a commitment to regular postings. If you don’t post at somewhat regular intervals, your followers may get bored and forget about you.


Facebook
Facebook is one way friends keep in contact with each other. Your friends ask you to “friend” them and then they get your posts (if they get onto Facebook and check). Some people want lots of friends and post many times per day. Some of these posters get annoying when they tell you 17 times a day what they are up to.

You can also become a fan of something like a business or idea. Still, it is a passive way to let people know what you’re up to. If your friends or fans are checking their page often, this can be a good way to communicate with them. Unlike a blog, you may pester people if you post too often. However, if they aren’t checking their Facebook page, they may miss what you have to say.


Twitter
Twitter is, as they claim, “a rich source of instant information.” People can join Twitter and ask others to sign up for their tweets. People can follow celebrities or their favorite nursery’s latest activities (if they tweet them). Heidi Grasman at Garden Crossings in Zeeland, Mich., tweets some of her favorite plants to customers who might guess “what is it?” or just want to buy something cool. But, if you tweet without people who want to know what you’re up to, the tweet will just go into cyberspace.


Social marketing options
The bottom line for a lot of social marketing is what will your customers listen to? If they are on Facebook, you might give that a try. Tweeting or blogging is very similar. You’re more likely to have success if your customers are already using this form of communication. To find out what forms of social media they are using, asking a simple question might help you decide which to use for your business. If you’re a retail grower, ask them if they Tweet, Facebook or read blogs. Their answers can help you determine how many of your customers are potential users of these forms of communication.

Word-of-mouth communication is really what these newer mechanisms are promoting. Could you recruit some new customers this way? Possibly; but take care of the ones you already have while slowly adopting some of the newer communication forms they are adopting. They just may help you make new friends who become new customers. After all, what are friends for?


Bridget Behe is professor, Michigan State University, Department of Horticulture, (517) 355-5191; behe@msu.edu.

December 2010
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