What exactly is social media? Why are words such as “like,” “tweet” and “hashtag” becoming important business words in the office? Social media has quickly become one of the most effective ways to not only reach consumers but also to influence their opinions and mindsets. Barbara Rackes of The Rackes Group is coaching and encouraging Midlands’ businesses in how to make successful, strategic use of social media and the Internet at large.
“Our mission is to help businesses and organizations use the Internet more effectively and to act as a bridge between the ‘technical geeks’ and the firms which engage them,” Barbara says. “We speak both languages, so we are the translator to help both meet each others’ expectations.”
Barbara has been a small business owner herself since 1976 when she opened Rackes, her high-end women’s clothing store on Devine Street. In 1996, Barbara closed her brick and mortar store and began operating exclusively online. This was only one year after Netscape first introduced graphics, which changed the Internet from a text-only medium.
“I have always been the type to look to the future, sometimes going beyond the cutting edge to the bleeding edge,” laughs Barbara. “The unexplored territory of the fresh and new has always excited me.”
Rackes was among the very first retail stores to go online in the Southeast and was the very first in South Carolina. Her online store proved to be a little ahead of its time.
“In 1996, the concept of online shopping was foreign to most people. There was just no way to convince them that the Internet was indeed secure with their payment information,” Barbara explains.
Because of her innovation, however, people began contacting Barbara with questions about using the Internet and setting up websites. She gradually shaped a new business, changing her mindset from being product-based to being knowledge-based, grounded in her experience. Barbara founded The Rackes Group (TRG) in 2002, about the time businesses began to feel the necessity of having an effective online presence.
“What businesses often still fail to understand is the difference between building a pretty site and effectively operating a website. Building a site with clear organization, naming and content that is useful to the end-user is an art, not a task. Anyone can pick up a tool; only an artisan uses it to perfection.”
For example, when Dr. Jim Rex was elected State Superintendent of Education, he asked TRG to help redefine the department’s massive website so that it would better serve South Carolina’s educators. After many hours of focus groups with both educators and staff, TRG revised the organization and structure of the site from about 72,000 pages to fewer than 5,000 pages. The project took more than a year to complete. The difference was structuring the content to reflect the interests of the audience rather than the Department’s internal structure.
Just as a decade ago websites were reshaping the business model, so is social media changing the way business communicates today.
“Social networking offers a virtual way of connecting with lots of people from different groups virally. It requires limited capital and has a multiplier effect that is surprising – in either a positive or negative way,” says Barbara.
The key for businesses to use social media capably is finding the right niche — using the proper medium for a given purpose and using it correctly. For example, Twitter is ideal for short (140 characters), concise messages that are time-sensitive.
“It puts a real-time buzz in front of people who follow you. Businesses that have newsworthy announcements or that are related to current events may have messages worth tweeting. Twitter is for the right now, and it’s witty and interesting,” says Barbara.
Barbara explains that dull tweets will bore people and may aggravate them enough that they stop following the senders. “Twitter is bringing back the craft of writing a great title,” she says, something that drives interest.
The most common error that businesses make in using social media is in overextending their connections with followers and fans. Businesses can easily cross the thin line between promoting and provoking, resulting in recipients choosing to “unlike” or “unfollow” them. One example Barbara mentions is the posting of verbatim press releases on Facebook.
“This is an egregious misuse of Facebook. No one will take the time to read it. A strategic alternative to this would be posting or paraphrasing two interesting sentences from the press release with a link to the whole thing. Facebook is not the place to put anything too long or academic,” Barbara explains.
Facebook is currently the leader among the different forms of social media since it boasts the most users and activity. Barbara suggests ending a Facebook post with a question or a challenge that will encourage the reader to continue thinking about the post or to even act on it. “You want your readers to comment and share with their friends. That’s the ultimate goal of social media.”
Managing social media can be overwhelming, so for people with multiple accounts, such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Foursquare, aggregating all of the information into a single-management application like HootSuite, TweetDeck or Hub Spot makes it much simpler.
“Social media as a business tool is still young, both locally in Columbia and nationally for the most part. Businesses need to carefully define a strategy and acquire the know how to make it successful,” comments Barbara.
In addition to using each medium properly, another vital aspect is remembering that it is social media, which entails interacting with people –– entering a dialogue. The communication cannot just be one way as in traditional types of marketing, but rather the business must engage its readers in a conversation that allows people to discuss both the positive and negative. It is ineffectual, as counter-intuitive as it initially seems, to limit posts to only those that praise or agree with the business.
According to Barbara, “This type of interactive discourse actually drives traffic and utilizes the viral spread of the Internet to the business’ benefit. The business can’t do all the talking — if one consumer posts something negative, it may entice another person to respond with their positive experience, which sparks the conversation you want.”
Social media is redefining the way a new generation communicates and is changing the concept of what “instant” means to each of us. This age is adapting to a different concept of language as well.
“We are losing a generation of kids to a new language that doesn’t include some important skills they need to survive in the world. My daughter will text me, ‘r u cuming 2 get me? dont 4get 2 bring snacks.’ It upsets all good grammar, but FYI, it’s becoming part of our language,” Barbara smiles. “The opposite danger occurs when people shut down and do not want to keep up with technology –– whether that’s at age 18 or age 88. We should all be lifelong learners, throwing off limits that put us out of touch with the current culture.”
Barbara considers herself living proof that it is possible to teach old dogs new tricks, so long as they are willing to learn.
“It is just like riding a bike or learning to cook — you just have to keep at it until you master it, and then continue to re-master it as things change and evolve. Growing a business requires perpetual learning and change. The Internet with social media is just one of many stages we go through as we evolve and grow our businesses.”