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Supply Lines: Who Likes You Now?

Posted: April 29, 2014, 9:50 a.m. EDT


Social media success requires strategy, diligence and a positive attitude toward its role in your business model.

By Brian Hutchins

A recent LinkedIn-sponsored survey of nearly 1,000 small and medium-sized businesses found that 81 percent used social media. Of those companies using social media, 94 percent used it for marketing purposes and 49 percent used it to learn and develop business insights, according to LinkedIn’s white paper, Priming the Economic Engine: How Social Media Is Driving Growth for Small and Medium Businesses, February 2014. Nine of 10 of the surveyed companies use social media to maintain brand presence and identity; 82 percent use it for lead generation, LinkedIn reported.

"Social media provides brands with a great opportunity to have direct contact with customers,” said Kerry Sutherland, founder of K. Sutherland PR, an Irvine, Calif., boutique public relations, social media and branding agency with multiple pet industry clients. "You can hear straight from the source feedback about your product and even get ideas for new product development. Additionally, it’s served as a great tool for us to work with mainstream media and promote product sales or retailer promotions on behalf of our clients.”

Cloud Star of San Luis Obispo, Calif., understands social media. Its campaign to promote its Proof of Purchase Donation Program, which launched in fall 2012, used Twitter and Facebook to promote the program.

When it launched, the program benefited 12 designated charities; it has since grown to support more than 70 charities as of late February.

"We use social media because it has evolved to not only be a form of entertainment, but also a source for information and a customer service tool,” said Ryan Tarver, director of marketing for Cloud Star. "When communicating with fans, our goal is not to sell to this audience, but rather to communicate with them and interact on a one-to-one basis. Your fan already likes you for a reason. Keep them there with interesting and original content.”

Tarver considers Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and Vine to be the best social media platforms for the pet industry, although the latter four are not ideal for interaction.

"Really any visual image- or video-based platform is going to be the best,” Tarver said. "The reason for this is that people are very visual, not to mention they are busy checking many other feeds at the same time, so it’s easier for them to glance at an image or one-liner than it is to read a long article. It is important to note that a well-thought-out media plan is going to be much stronger—and much more valuable—to the viewer than simply posting meme images of pictures of cute animals. It is also important to not sell directly to the fan; people are so bombarded by advertising that the last thing they want to see in their news feed is another pitch for a sale.”

The Face of Social Media
Facebook remains the dominant social media channel, with an estimated 71 percent of adult American Internet users using Facebook and 69 percent of Americans with incomes greater than $75,000, according to the Pew Research Internet Project. By comparison, only 73 percent of adult American Internet users used any social media site. LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram (bought by Facebook in 2013) and Twitter each seems to be used by about 20 percent of online adults as of September 2013, the survey found.

Sanford Finley, owner of Perfect Manners Dog Training in Chicago, focuses on Facebook for building brand recognition. His company’s Facebook page had 10,666 "likes” as of mid-March.

"I grew my followers by tracking times my posts were made, type of posts and response,” Finley said. "I gradually recognized a formula for posts that generated the most response and keyed in on that. I try to post twice per day, one targeting the stay-at-homes and one targeting the evening readers.”

For Finley, Facebook complements SEO. He said his efforts have placed Perfect Manners on the first page of Google results for dog training in his market area. Because potential clients might already think favorably of Perfect Manners because of its Facebook page, Finley believes they are more likely to check out his website and become customers.

"It is the old funnel-down approach to marketing,” he said. "Facebook serves as the broad end of the funnel. Very few sales have come directly from Facebook. However, my trainers often get feedback from new customers that they just love our Facebook page. Is this coincidence or causation? I don’t know for sure. But sales are up and my gut tells me it is helpful.”

Still, other platforms offer other benefits.

Tweet, Tweet Success
"Twitter is so important for any company as a customer service tool, and platforms like TweetDeck make it easy to find potential customers based on key search terms,” Sutherland said. "Pinterest has become very effective for pet product companies too, as it’s designed to engage the target pet product purchaser, women, and drive direct traffic to websites.”

Sutherland cites one of her clients’ use of Twitter.

"ThunderShirt uses Twitter so effectively as a customer service tool and a way to find people talking about problems where they offer the product solution,” she said. "It’s labor intensive but extremely focused. They’ve even earned mention on Twitter by mainstream celebrities because of their outreach tactics.”

A careless tweet, however, could be damaging.

"As far as Twitter is concerned, there seems a real danger for brand reps to sully a corporate message with the inclusion of personal or whimsical tweets,” said Ian Bouchard, president of Yanosan Group, a Seattle-based product development, sales and marketing consultancy. "Further, many companies’ official tweets seem like perfunctory posts that do little more than fulfill the marketing department’s mandate to engage. That said, Twitter would seem to be a good vehicle for nimble customer service in the way of alerts (food safety, etc.).”

Use It; Don’t Lose It
Truly understanding the various social media outlets requires using them, Sutherland said.

"Pet industry professionals should first be on social media themselves,” she said. "The best way to learn a new social media platform is to try it on a personal level. After all, these sites were originally created to engage individuals.”

LinkedIn, of course, was developed for business relationships.

"I’ve found that as a means to foster relationships, get good intelligence and pull talent, LinkedIn has no rival,” said Bouchard, who runs several LinkedIn interest groups in various industries, including the pet industry. "In many ways, it could be seen as a place where one could find a company’s weak spots by using departed management info: things like turnover, examining the resumes of key personnel and looking at new hires in different categories (sales vs. R&D, etc.). For example, after the Diamond debacle, there was a flurry of food safety hires and searches there and at other co-packers as well.”

Bouchard offers the following hypothetical scenario as an example. A client asks for options of distributors in the Pacific Northwest. A quick LinkedIn search could provide key details about a company, for example, that its senior vice president of merchandising has big-box experience but not much independent retailer background, that the director of its private-label division has grown the division to $8 million a year, suggesting it might poach hot product ideas from the brands it carries; and that a smaller distributor doesn’t employ anyone with a LinkedIn profile, suggesting that its staff doesn’t have much outside professional experience.

"These may not be major insights but can help prepare a more valuable and nuanced recommendation for my client,” Bouchard said. "In the past, one might have leaned on Hoovers, D&B and annual reports to get a sense of what was happening. Now, using LinkedIn, I can drill down deeper using key personnel profiles.”

Conversely, Bouchard has used Facebook to test and hone marketing messages to consumers.

"I didn’t use Facebook for our Spike brand but did quite a bit of testing there with our Bright Night Lighted Umbrella, where we did A/B testing based on demographic and seasonal targeting,” Bouchard said.

"It was amazing how quick and cost-effective it was. We used much of the information to help craft our pitches to traditional brick-and-mortar retailers.”

What’s It All For?
Measuring return on social media investment, like any marketing investment, can be challenging.

"It’s difficult, but in a sense it is really no different than trying to measure the ROI on a printed ad in a major consumer magazine,” Tarver said. "If you are preparing a major social media campaign, be it a contest, promotion or new product, and want to measure the success, there are a few key items that you can look at to give you a better idea of your ROI.

"Direct sales: Simply measure the before, during and after sales numbers. Conversations: Do you have more people talking about your brand after the campaign? How many shares, ‘likes,’ comments? Looking at all of these data points together will paint a very clear picture of how your social media investment performed.

Social media is a powerful tool; if done well you can be making a brand impression on thousands of people in a matter of minutes.”

Social Media Faux Pas
Social media done well is the trick. Too many companies and individuals will post a string of dozens or more tweets, all with the message: "We just posted a pic on Facebook” with a shortened URL.

Other mistakes include neglecting social media accounts, Sutherland said.

"Signing up for any and all social media outlets just because you think you have to, then never doing anything with it,” she said. "If you’re not regularly updating, people will become disinterested and feel like your brand is insincere. I also don’t think pet companies are really understanding the value in hashtags or using them effectively. This can be a great search tool as well as a way to include yourself in a conversation that your target is already having. Additionally, not recognizing that more traditional successes, like a magazine article or advertising campaign through a retailer, can be leveraged effectively on social media.”

Another mistake is not coordinating efforts on various social media platforms.

"One company for whom I’ve done work has no coordinated participation strategy across three popular services,” Bouchard said. "In the course of 10 minutes I was able to point out three competing messages, presented with different language, design elements and tone, all of which had been sanctioned by different team leads—worse than a complete waste of time and money.”

No LOL Matter
Now that Facebook and Twitter have gone public, they will no doubt feel investor pressure to generate quarterly revenue and earnings growth.

"Since Facebook has gone public, there were some changes in the algorithms for how posts from businesses and companies made it into a fan’s news feed,” Tarver said. "This did thwart many companies’ social media efforts, but there is something that can’t be affected by Facebook’s policy changes, and that is shares and comments. The most positive gauge for how a post does is how many people share and talk about it.”

Sutherland sees a role for social media advertising.

"Facebook advertising is probably the most beneficial [social media] advertising opportunity, as it basically allows you to buy friends, and we know that once you get someone to ‘like’ you on Facebook, the probability of ever losing that ‘like’ is slim to none,” Sutherland said. "However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be engaged or interested in what you have to say.

"If you can make any platform work strategically and effectively, it’s worth it. If it’s a major time-suck and not generating much, you might want to re-evaluate your strategy.”

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