Your Business’ Best Friend

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Using online networks effectively can engage your customer base.

Thirty years ago, I attended an association meeting workshop with 20 business owners who were enjoying various levels of success in their industry. We were to share our experiences about stimulating new business through the use of direct mail. I was having some encouraging success with direct mail and was hoping to pick up a nugget or two from the others as they bragged about how they used direct mail methods to grow sales. To my surprise, all I heard were tales of failed campaigns and statements of how worthless direct mail was as a sales technique.

At first I was mystified why I was achieving some level of success while the others were finding direct mail to be an unacceptable expense. But on my flight home, the answer came to me: the reason I was successful in my use of direct mail was because I viewed it as an indispensable element of my total sales process — a way to stimulate interest that would ultimately lead to closed deals — while my peers viewed it as a sales process unto itself.

The same is true of social media today. The purpose of being active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, BlogSpot and the like is not to sell or close deals, but to engage prospects in a dialogue which will turn them into followers and finally customers. What are the secrets to doing it right?

First Things First
The goal of social media communication with prospects and customers is not to sell, but to establish a dialogue and differentiate oneself from the competition. This is done by informing the audience about issues that matter to them, thereby creating an atmosphere in which targets want to do business with the company. The owner, or whoever is blogging, posting or tweeting on behalf of the firm, positions himself or herself as an expert in the field and thus becomes the go to person for any services prospects might need in the future. The expert’s communications have to be informative, educational and imaginative. More or less transparent attempts to sell will drive prospects away.

Before establishing a social media presence, it’s important to develop a system that will drive prospects to the pertinent sites. After all, what good is being on Twitter or Tumblr if people have never heard of the firm? There won’t be any friends or fans to talk to. That’s where “drip marketing” comes in, which sends or “drips” a series of messages to customers or prospects over time to drive traffic. Here are the steps to set it up:

Select a software provider for the drip marketing campaign. The software is very economical (a few hundred dollars to start up and perhaps a $20 monthly fee) and a professional rather than homegrown approach will increase results. The return from a drip marketing campaign integrated with a social media campaign is almost infinite, so the investment is well worthwhile. Vendors to consider are: planplusonline.com, salesforce. com, totalbge.com and openinspires.com.

Establish a database of prospects, complete with email addresses. If dealing with both residential and commercial customers, code the database accordingly to create custom messages for each audience. The database can include people who have already inquired about services, as well as new leads, which might come from Realtor.com (e.g., people who are moving into the area) or from the local chamber of commerce (e.g., businesses new to the contractor’s service area).

Set up the content and frequency of an email campaign to the target prospects, followed by alerts to the owner’s or salespeople’s smart phones for follow-up.

Track progress through the database, following the full sales cycle with each prospect.

Once the social media presence is in place, the drip marketing emails will link to the sites and provide compelling reasons for people to visit.

Hot Topics for Social Media Now, establish the social media presence, starting with Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. With Facebook, it will be necessary to set up a personal page first and then create the business page from there. To learn more about these sites and the appropriate protocols, two helpful videos are available at Amazon.com: “Imagine Your Reality Presents Facebook for Small Business,” hosted by actor/director Taylor Ellwood, and “Grow Your Business with Twitter,” a stepbystep video tutorial directed by Greg Mason.

Use the social media sites to inform people what is going on in their community. Since some of them limit the amount of text you can post, complement the postings with more detailed blogs, either on the firm’s Web site or a blogging site such as BlogSpot.com. Use both the social media sites and the emails to stimulate interest and link to the blogs where the audience can become informed and educated on topics of interest to them.

Here are some potential discussion topics:

  • A plumbing contractor could write about the water quality in the community. If the firm deals in residential plumbing, the topic may be about the health benefits of pure water, or the environmental effects of hard water and the greater amount of detergent that must be used to counteract its effects. A plumber dealing with industrial concerns might write about the effects of untreated water on tooling in a machine shop. Another popular topic is water conservation, or how more efficient water heaters save fuel.
  • An electrical contractor could write on such topics as code changes in the community, or how a simple change in materials or a thorough inspection could have prevented that local fire in the news. Other topics might be how a new business can initially establish its electrical needs and design a system that will grow with the company; determining the electrical needs and set up of a well appointed home office; or how lighting affects mood and a feeling of well-being.
  • An HVAC contractor who provides air quality add-ons to furnaces and air conditioning units could discuss common air pollutants and the latest EPA findings on air quality in homes.
  • A home or commercial contractor also has a wealth of topics, including code changes; insulation benefits; incentives and tax credits for energy-saving furnaces; comparisons of the efficiency of furnaces, A/C units and energy-saving windows and doors; and design concepts for the most efficient workflow in a kitchen or home office. A particularly powerful approach is to post how-to videos for simple home repairs, the kind a homeowner wouldn’t call a contractor to do. The many people who Google for information on making repairs will see the videos and associate them with the expert in the field who can solve their problems.

While direct mail was a one-sided “conversation,” the exciting thing about social media is the dialogue. People not only read a firm’s posts, they join in the conversation if the topic interests them. A contractor who is posting educational or actionable information can now receive feedback on what other people are thinking and even on what competitors might be doing. Remember, the point is to inform, educate, establish credibility and create a dialogue. It’s virtually impossible to close a deal using social media.

Drip marketing emails and social media initiatives have to be regular and consistent in order to maintain momentum. A blog should be issued at least once a month, ideally once a week. If followers and friends don’t see anything for several weeks, they will lose interest. It’s a good investment to hire outside marketing help if no one at the construction company can make the commitment to keep up with the process.

Social Media Success
Social media marketing is a low key yet highly effective way to attract leads and establish a dialogue with them without the need for initial face-to-face contact. It’s noninvasive, yet allows construction companies to gather intelligence on prospects and to pass information on to them. As part of an integrated sales process it is a very powerful tool that has the potential to increase close rates tremendously.

Most importantly, social media marketing differentiates a company from the pack. That’s critical because when all things are equal among competitors, price will always win — which is not a profitable game to play. Use social media instead to make sure nothing will ever be viewed as equal.

About Douglas.DeRubeis 2 Articles
Douglas DeRubeis is a consulting services director. He has 17 years of experience as a general manager in light manufacturing.

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