There’s a reason Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest and other social media sites have become indispensible as business tools: they’ve revolutionized word-of-mouth marketing. Consequently, businesses around the Midlands are benefitting from expanding marketing efforts through this growing trend.
When Erin Galloway, executive director of Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter, wanted to promote an excursion that was designed as part of the organization’s Teen Life Skills Program curriculum, she didn’t send a news release to the paper or call news directors at television stations. Instead, she tweeted about it in real time, adding photos to what ended up resembling an online travel diary. Not only did the story go to all of Palmetto Place’s Twitter followers, but since a reporter from the Free Times re-tweeted the posts, it also went to even more followers, exponentially expanding the number of people who were able to read the story as it unfolded.
“I don’t think the story would have been as interesting one or two days later,” Erin says. “Using social media, we reached a larger audience with a compelling story that unfolded as the day went on. People commented, re-tweeted and checked back for updates. It generated a lot of great publicity and didn’t cost a dime.”
Lexington Medical Center launched its first Facebook page in 2008; since then, the hospital has added separate pages for seven of its physician practices. The hospital also is active on Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and the blogosphere, sharing health tips and other community information with its followers.
“This type of outreach supports our mission to provide quality health services that meet the needs of our community,” explains public relations manager Jennifer Wilson. “It takes time, but it’s a great investment.”
Marketing isn’t the only place local businesses are utilizing social media. Companies also use various platforms as recruiting devices. “We view social media as a tool to show potential employees the many ways our firm is such a great place to work,” notes Stefanie Caraviello marketing director for the business defense law firm Collins and Lacy, PC. “On our various social media channels, we share stories of our involvement in the community, and we shine a spotlight on events and milestones.”
Lexington Medical Center also uses social media to proactively find employees. “We use a tool called ‘Tweet My Jobs,’ which distributes employment opportunities through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, mobile and across the web,” explains Jennifer. “The goal is to effectively target job seekers based on the type of listing. It’s a great way to find outstanding applicants.”
Lauren FitzHugh, whose firm, 4971 Communications, specializes in social media as a way to broaden audience reach for her clients and manage their brands, considers it really to be about enhancing and amplifying what’s happening within a company. “It is just a new way to share information,” she explains. “Posts create conversations, which we call engagements. As the conversations grow, so does the buzz.”
Lauren used social media to promote Columbia’s Famously Hot New Year celebration and drive visitors to its website. She peppered the Famously Hot New Year Facebook page with posts designed to encourage visitors to like the page, engage with it and return to it. She posted clues about what bands would be playing, chances to win tickets, cleverly captioned photos and other teasers. Anyone who “liked” the page would see the daily updates on their Facebook news feed. Tweets included any information associated with Famously Hot, Main Street and New Year’s Eve, including re-tweets of news about the event, as well as information on street closings from the Columbia Police Department and New Year’s Eve promotions and special offers from Main Street businesses. As more and more followers commented on or re-tweeted the posts that appeared on their own Twitter feeds, information spread to reach people who might otherwise have not been able to engage in the discussion. In the end, 10 percent of the traffic to the Famously Hot New Year website came directly from social media.
Lauren also works with the Devine Street Merchants Association, whose first foray into social media was about two years ago when it used emails to promote an event. Jennifer Suber, the association’s marketing coordinator, says, “We saw a significant improvement in attendance and knew we were on to something.”
A Facebook page promoting individual businesses and offering links to their websites and Facebook pages soon followed. “The level to which you can focus your message is incredible,” she says. “We serve a diverse group of merchants, and Facebook lets us reach audiences for individual retailers and restaurants with incredible accuracy.”
Facebook and Twitter are just two of a number of social media sites that professionals are using. Working for One Columbia, which promotes cultural and historical happenings in Columbia, Lauren and interim executive director Barbara Rackes developed a plan to use the location-based social media app Foursquare to promote public art.
“We have a directory of public art, but it isn’t interactive,” explains Lauren. “Foursquare let us translate the directory to social media. Users who found themselves near a piece of public art would get an alert to let them know, allow them to check in, encourage them to share their opinion of the piece and tell them about similar works nearby.”
USC goes beyond Facebook and Twitter also communicating via Foursquare, Instagram, Pinterest, Storify, YouTube, GooglePlus, Flickr and Vine to reach students, potential students, employees, fans, alumni and parents. Crossing over to traditional media, the university features photos from Instagram in the Carolinian, Day Times and USC Times. Facebook and Twitter are also two of the 20 outlets the university will use in case of a rare campus emergency.
The trick, of course, is creating posts that draw people in and encourage them to share. Patrick Cobb, communications director for AARP in Columbia, got his organization involved in social media in 2008 with a Facebook page and Twitter feeds. Before long, the sites had attracted a huge following.
“It’s like a legal, and beneficial, Ponzi scheme,” he says with a laugh. “It grows on itself, and the organization benefits.”
Patrick, who spent decades using traditional outlets to promote businesses, finds social media to be a breath of fresh air. Pulling from entertainment, trivia, current events and sports, as well as more serious issues like utility rate hikes and politics, his posts are informative, fun and always relevant to AARP’s audience. He spends about 30 percent of each day generating content and monitoring the site for offensive posts that need to be deleted, answering questions and maintaining conversations. To keep posts coming at a regular pace, but without interrupting other work, he’ll often write several at one time, then schedule them for release throughout the day.
His goal is to stay fresh and relevant and to manage the AARP brand. “It’s all about remembering your voice and who you’re trying to reach,” he explains. “Of course, that’s always been true. But today we know immediately if something hits the mark or misses it and we can change the strategy immediately.”
In addition to working as interim executive director of One Columbia, Barbara runs The Rackes Group, a successful marketing company. She has found that adding a social media component to a communications strategy is a smart move.
“The best way for businesses to be successful is to combine all the tools that are available, both traditional and non-traditional,” she says. “The values and overall message don’t change, only the vehicle and how the topic is framed. Facebook is visual, so you need to decide what you want people to see first, second and third. Twitter is brief, so asking a question will often get the conversation started.”
Before taking the plunge into social media, businesses need to be prepared to manage what they create. Barbara suggests pulling together a team of advocates who can be called on to boost efforts when necessary with positive posts, re-tweets and shares. “Not only can it get a conversation started,” she explains, “but if something controversial comes up, the situation will have a better chance of staying in control. If handled well, controversy is a great tool for driving interaction.”
Information proves to be a strategic tool as well, notably in the case of Lexington Medical Center. Although most everything the organization posts on its many social media platforms is also available on its website, social media outlets offer a distinct difference: interaction.
“Healthy eating is a great example,” explains Jennifer. “If someone visits our website to find ideas for snacks that are good for them, they’ll find it. But if they visit our Facebook page, where we may have posted a question like ‘What is your favorite healthy snack?’ they’ll get ideas from others participants as well. Since people are constantly adding to the conversation, they’ll come back again and again.”
Amid the benefits of social media, there are legalities that can create problems for employers if they’re not prepared.
“It’s been found to be illegal to fire an employee for criticizing his or her employer via social media, so it’s smart to create some sort of policy about what can and cannot be said when discussing the company online,” says David Dubberly, an employment and labor attorney with Nexsen Pruet. The list goes on, including disclosure if a company pays someone to say good things about their company via social media, liability for false or misleading comments, and whether hourly employees are owed pay for time spent monitoring sites. “The bottom line is that you have to monitor it,” says David.
Still, for most area businesses, the benefits of social media far outweigh the risks. “Investing in social media may seem like a big responsibility, but it’s really like holding the door open for your customers and people you know in the community,” says Lauren. “And that’s good for business.”