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To connect with customers viral can be a good thing

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Social media isn’t just the newest buzz word. It’s also a great tool for marketing a business inexpensively, especially in a down economy, said Tonia Speir, owner of CASE Solutions, an advertising company based in Myrtle Beach.

Working in conjunction with the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce, she was in Murrells Inlet on Friday to instruct local business owners in how to use that tool effectively to court new customers and keep existing ones coming back.

“Social media is free and opens up a network of referrals,” she told the group. “And it builds virally, so you’re constantly drawing in new people and talking to them in a way so that you should stay at the top of their mind.”

The trick is finding the right balance when it comes to how often to use the networks to communicate with “fans” and “followers.”

Send messages too frequently and people will stop paying attention or “end up jumping off your list.” If communications are too scarce, a business isn’t getting all it can from the site.

Speir talked specifically about three social networking Web sites: Facebook.com, Linkedin.com and Twitter.com. A quick survey of the room showed those in attendance had questions ranging from what social networking sites are to how to use them to draw in a younger clientele.

While social networking is a good way to reach young people, Speir told them that people of all ages are using social networking sites.

On Facebook, easily the most popular social networking Web site, women 55 and older are in the fastest growing demographic of users.

Facebook, Speir said, “is like being invited to a dinner party.” It’s a networking site for friends and a way for users to keep up with people they may see or talk to infrequently.

Most pages belong to individuals, but businesses, nonprofits and social groups can also create Facebook pages. People sign up as “fans” and any messages posted on the page go out to all fans.

When someone signs up as a fan, it’s published on their friends’ pages, so Facebook is a good way to get the word out about a business or group quickly. “I can track $10,000 worth of business from connections made on Facebook,” Speir said. “It grows like wildfire.”

If Facebook is a dinner party, Linkedin is a business conference, Speir said.

Linkedin is a professional networking site, where users can connect with other businesses and professionals.

Speir likened Twitter, a mico-blogging Web site, to “being in a bar.”

“Everybody is there came for the same social reason, but it’s very loud, because lots of conversations are going on at once, and you may not know everybody there,” she explained.

Twitter allows users to send out frequent, brief updates about activities that can be viewed by anyone.

“Basically, you have 140 characters to tell the world what you are doing right now,” Speir said.

Those who sign up to track a user’s posts, known as “tweets,” are called “followers.” All three sites are easy to use and getting started takes very little effort, Speir said.

Speir had other tips for marketing in a down economy.

First and foremost, existing customers should be the top priority, she said. They are already familiar with the business and what it has to offer, and are the most likely to tell their friends and family about it.

It’s important to stay in touch with existing customers, Speir added, and however you do it, the personalized approach is best. Personalized mailers can be printed for about the same price as the generic “Dear Customer” kind, thanks to today’s technology, and are shown to have a return rate that’s three times higher.

E-mail is also an effective and inexpensive way to communicate with customers.

“If you don’t have an e-mail database, start collecting now,” Speir said. “It’s easy and they’re getting your message instantly.”

“Repackaging” an existing offer, such as a discount on a purchase, may also be a good idea in a down economy, she said. If the response to an offer isn’t what the business owner would like, try offering something else, such as a free gift with purchase.

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