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Business Builder: Weave Your More Perfect Web

Posted: September 25, 2013, 2:30 p.m. EDT


Facebook may still reign supreme, but more customers than ever before are following the growing "in crowd” of social media: Twitter, Pinterest, Foursquare and Yelp.

By Keith Loria

By now, all pet retailers should be engaged in some sort of social media, be it Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email, blogs, vlogs, etc. These sites help pet store owners stay in contact with customers, promote sales and events, remain ahead of the competition and market their operation.

In short, it’s the modern interpretation of word-of-mouth advertising and, if businesses remain focused on providing an outstanding customer experience, social media will do wonders for their businesses.

Bolivar J. Bueno, author of "The Power of Cult Branding” and board member of the National Retail Federation, offers three simple reasons why pet retailers should embrace the power of social media: It helps them become friends with their customers, it helps them tap into the power of numbers, and it brings their businesses into the proper cultures.

"By connecting with what is relevant to your customers, you can be there to offer value and build relationships for your store before anyone else,” Bueno said. "As a retailer you no longer have to be intimidated by metrics. Most social media will let you see what content is working (getting shared and liked) and what is not grooving with your audience. Plus, those consumers that are socializing online are also learning to buy the same way. This means that if your retailer becomes part of their social network as this customer develops, he or she will bring you along in their life.”

Beverly Lefevre, store manager of Paw’s Natural Pet Emporium in Richland, Wash., understands that social media is now more important than word-of-mouth or phone books.

"We are in an era where information is no farther than your cell phone or computer; therefore, the natural train of logic leads us to keep up with the demand that is placed on us by our clients and consumers,” Lefevre said. "Customers value feeling connected to their favorite businesses. They want to know what is going on, and they want to feel like they know the people working there. It gives a great opportunity to connect with them on new and stronger levels.”

CompTIA, a not-for-profit association for the information technology industry, conducted a study in 2012 on business use of social media and social tools, and found that businesses can improve communications, recruiting, customer relationships and other processes by expanding their social engagement beyond well-known public sites.

The survey found that a full 82 percent of responding organizations had a Facebook presence, 68 percent had a Twitter profile, and 68 percent had a LinkedIn page. 

"For businesses, the social space can be divided into two categories: public social media sites and social enterprise tools that bring social capabilities into an organization’s business processes,” said Steven Ostrowski, company director of corporate communications. "Social enterprise tools incorporate the characteristics of social media into business processes, allowing for stronger internal collaboration, deeper understanding of customers and other positive outcomes.”

Rather than simply running an advertising campaign to "tell” customers something, social media compels retailers to ensure they provide content of value and to consider how they can grow its presence.
 
Ira Richards, marketing director for West Lebanon Feed & Supply in West Lebanon, N.H., said the store has long remained a proponent of the concept of consumer-driven, web-based engagement.
 
"There is something wonderfully organic about these social media platforms being completely driven and sustained by customers,” Richards said. "It certainly helps to level the playing field among competitors, it allows end users to have the final word regarding their trust and support of an organization, and it gives everyone a voice through which to report on their own positive (or negative) experiences.”

For marketing and customer engagement purposes, West Lebanon Feed & Supply currently uses Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Foursquare and Yelp. It also uses blogging and email marketing to remain digitally connected with its customers.

"Sharing information on that platform truly puts the control into the hands of customers, which in turn allows us to gain immediate insight and feedback concerning a particular aspect of our business, promotion, product or event,” Richards said. "We are always on the lookout for new and exciting ways to reach our customers and to stay relevant in an increasingly digital world.”

Something Old, Something New
Giovanni Senafe, owner of Bentleys Corner Barkery in Arlington Heights, Ill., is a fan of Twitter, as it allows his business to interact in real time with his customers.

"When a cute puppy comes in, we can announce to our followers and say, ‘Come in and meet so and so; he is the cutest,’” he said. "We have had a lot of success showcasing dogs/cats up for adoption and letting that spread quickly. Overall, we love being able to watch our little community of customers share ideas and thoughts.”

Kate Click, social media manager of family-owned Tomlinson’s Feed & Pets in Austin, Texas, said whereas other channels, such as email campaigns, direct mail or traditional media buys, are one-way communications, social media enables Tomlinson’s to experience a true two-way dialogue with its customers.

"We primarily use Facebook, which serves several roles for us: It’s an online hub for our customers and friends, people can see the latest happenings at our stores and check in on events and the latest information that we may not get on our main website as quickly,” she said. "We also use it for customer service. Customers can private message or post on our timeline with store experiences good and bad—we want to know about both—product requests, pet nutrition questions and any other questions they might ask an in-store employee.”

Facebook remains the social media choice of Heidi Vanorse Neal, co-owner of Loyal Biscuit Co. in Rockland, Maine. With 3,100 followers, Neal is able to discuss with customers events, nutrition, recalls, new products and more that she would never be able to share in-store.

Still, she understands the value in trying other sites, and she’s slowly moving into new avenues.

"We recently joined Pinterest, and we have been using it to promote events and products, as well as some just-for-fun boards,” she said. "We have a YouTube channel, but I just haven’t been able to use that like I want to. I do, however, feel that there are too many social media channels out there for us to participate in them all. That in itself could be a full-time job, and as a small business, we just don’t have those resources.”

As social media constantly changes through new trends and enhanced capabilities, businesses should strive to perpetually learn and reach for new ways to connect with their customers through social networks, continuing to keep their eyes on the lesser-known apps as they gain traction, particularly among a younger audience.

"We’re late to the party, but we just signed up for Instagram,” said Clark. "Our use of it will evolve as we learn, but I hope to use it as a way to share some of the more lighthearted, fun things about working in the pet business. We have a lot of cute animals in and out of our stores, and Instagram is a great way to share those quick moments without getting bogged down in the details of a full-on Facebook post or website update.”

Even though it’s been around for a while, Richards said West Lebanon Feed & Supply recently began devoting more attention to Foursquare.

"In spite of the fact that Facebook offers a similar function through its Facebook Places utility, we found that our customers were checking in on Foursquare organically and posting pictures and information about their experiences at our store without us even establishing a presence there,” he said. "It was immediately clear that this was a platform through which our customers were already engaged, and it gave us an opportunity to claim that digital space and to discover ways in which we can provide value as a business to those who gather there.”

West Lebanon Feed & Supply is currently exploring Foursquare Specials and Local Updates utilities in order to provide useful information on demand and to incentivize more frequent visits to the store.

Social Media In Action
When the industry recently experienced a pet food recall, it was paramount that West Lebanon Feed & Supply reach out to its customers to alert them and keep them informed, and its protocol included automated voice messaging, email alerts and social media.

"In this particular instance, social media platforms provided an effective means of linking directly to the manufacturer’s site for up-to-date information and press releases, as well as for providing detailed instructions on how to initiate redemption of the recalled product,” Richards said. "And because social media maintains that live link with our customers, allowing for real-time engagement to answer questions and provide solutions, we were able to effectively take action by providing the necessary information to assist our customers and to build on the trust we’ve established with them over the years.”

An interesting contest Neal is running on her social media sites concerns a new mixed-breed puppy at the store that was recently DNA tested. Whoever can correctly guess what breeds he is will receive a gift certificate to the store. 

The most successful social media initiative at Tomlinson’s was a promotion it did with local rescue groups, in which for every like or follow the store received on social media, it would donate $2 to a different rescue every month.

"This fired up our existing fan base and improved relationships with local rescues, which sent their Facebook fans (and our ideal customers) to our Facebook page in droves,” Click said. "The result: Our Facebook following exploded, as did our goodwill in the pet community.”

The best advice to any pet store retailer who is considering the time and resource allocations necessary to engage through social media outlets is to get to know your customers, ask about their preferred social media apps, and discover where they are right now. Always be prepared to adapt, because their location can change quickly.

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