Social Media for Local Businesses

Meeting Customer Needs Where They Live
by Michael Thurwanger
Eureka College

It’s hardly newsworthy to state that new technologies and the emergence of social media have changed the way individuals communicate today. And those same changes are shaping the way organizations connect with their target audiences. Many of us are struggling with questions of whether we should incorporate social media into our strategic communications and, if so, how do we do it?

As is so often the case, the answer is to educate ourselves about the changing rules of the communication game, but at the same time, keep going back to the basics. The name of the game for many of us is “branding,” and the up-and-coming experts on social media are developing models for employing these new channels to establish and maintain the relationships that set leading organizations apart and differentiates them from their competitors.

When we discuss the changing rules of strategic communication, most of us think of Facebook, Twitter and other emerging media channels. Before we focus on the communication channels, it’s important to realize that the fundamental relationship between organization and audience has reversed itself over the past several decades. The communication environment has shifted from a “push” relationship in which organizations package their messages and push those messages out to their intended audiences. Increasingly, we’ve entered a “pull” relationship with our customers, investors and other key audiences where individuals determine what information they need. They expect that information to be readily accessible and in a useful format when they need it via media channels that fit their lifestyle. Failure to meet those expectations is likely to undermine our communication effectiveness and may result in the loss of that relationship to another more readily accessible and transparent organization.

Know Your Audience
CEO, web entrepreneur and adventurist Peter Shankman, is nationally recognized for his success in exploiting the power of various forms of publicity and relationship building for his agency and clients, especially in the realm of social media. The author of Can We Do That? Outrageous PR Stunts That Work, Shankman is perhaps best known as the founder of HARO—Help A Reporter Out (helpareporter.com). This website serves as an online clearinghouse linking more than 100,000 expert sources with nearly 30,000 journalists globally. The site emerged from Shankman’s recognition that reporters on deadline, who are being asked to do more with less, would benefit from a ready resource listing willing and knowledgeable sources and their areas of expertise. At the same time, these sources and the organizations they represent benefit from the enhanced credibility and visibility from the resultant publicity.

HARO is a great example of the use of social media to build relationships, and it reflects the philosophies of those who have realized success in the social media arena. As a media relations specialist, Shankman wanted to develop and nurture good, working relationships with reporters. By creating HARO, he provided that audience with a resource they really needed. His ability to give his target audience what they needed means they actively seek him out and want to work with him.

This isn’t a new concept; it’s back to the basics of effective communication. Know your audience and provide them content that serves their needs and interests. Shankman, who claims to have never spent money on traditional advertising, summarizes the secret of his success as getting people to do his advertising for him. He provides relevant content but reinforces communication with a personal touch. For small businesses, you are your brand, and Shankman argues that there is little difference between your personal and professional life. He advocates (and practices) sharing personal interests and philosophies with his audience mixed with credible information. He argues that transparency is an essential weapon in this new environment in which clients seek a personal relationship and demand a measure of trust and credibility. Personalized communication such as recognizing birthdays or extending congratulations on personal or organizational accomplishments enhance communication and build these relationships.

“When an organization goes the extra mile, people treated well will become fans and do your PR for you,” Shankman said in a recent blog entry.

The key, then, is to build content that really helps people and to provide useful and interesting content via a relevant channel of communication. The reality is that we have more ways to talk with our customers and clients than ever before, but we have to be accessible where they are. Success isn’t tied to using the latest social media outlet unless your audience uses that as their preferred media channel. Twitter or Facebook might not be effective in reaching your target audience, but the challenge is to constantly monitor your audience and their media consumption patterns. Facebook, for example, is no longer just the domain of students and young adults but has become an important channel for business-to-business communications, and senior citizens represent one of the fastest growing segment of Facebook users.

Convey Your Message Effectively
A final consideration in effective use of social media is another example of “getting back to the basics.” Both the relationship and the channels of communication make effective writing even more essential to successful communication. Users are inundated by information and seek strong, succinct writers to condense and package information to meet their needs. Writers in the social media realm must know their message and be able to convey its essence in the most efficient way possible. Twitter, with its 140-character limit, is the ultimate example of abbreviated communication, and users have made very effective use of this medium in publicity, political and marketing campaigns. Now, perhaps more than ever, competition for audience attention and demand for concise content requires great writers who can capture reader attention immediately while providing critical content. Writers must constantly monitor their message and writing to evaluate its usefulness. The final question they must ask before sending that “tweet” has to be whether it will have real value for those following them on Twitter. The same is true for other social media as well.

The emergence of social media as essential channels for strategic communication is a game changer. We have more communication tools than ever before, and our audiences now control much of the initiative in the communication relationship. But the underlying concepts remain unchanged and may be more important than ever. To communicate effectively, we must know our audience and provide content and access that fits their information needs and communication lifestyles. To the extent we serve our audience well and live up to their expectations, we create what Shankman refers to as “top-of-mind presence.” In that way, our followers become our greatest asset and pass our messages along, opening ever-expanding avenues to new fans, friends and audiences in the social media environment. iBi


Learn more about Peter Shankman's philosophies during his keynote presentation at the Public Relations Association of Central Illinois (PRA) 2010 Conference. The conference will take place from 9am to 3pm at the Par-A-Dice Hotel in East Peoria and will include a continental breakfast, workshops, lunch, vendors, and networking opportunities for public relations, marketing, communications and business professionals. For more information, call (309) 636-8017 or visit pracentillinois.org.

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