When TCW posted a query in December – via social media – seeking entrepreneurs who successfully used Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media channels to grow their business, I admit I was skeptical. Isn’t social media’s return on investment still unproven, or does it really work?
Within 24 hours, TCW received over a dozen responses (and far more leads) from women whose businesses ranged from retail to professional services. Social media, they affirmed, really works. Some found it led directly to sales, while others appreciated social media for its intended purpose: to develop new relationships and strengthen existing ones. A couple of respondents believed that their use of social media led to exposure on traditional media outlets.
“Social media as a customer service tool can be incredibly powerful,” affirms Mana Ionescu, founder and president of Lightspan Digital, a company that provides social media consulting and services. “Today, social networks are often the first stop for customers looking for updates or to give feedback. It’s no longer a question of whether you should be active online. You have to be there, or many opportunities will pass you by.”
Tiffany Kurtz, owner of Flirty Cupcakes, agrees. Dialogue with her company’s customers, primarily through Facebook and Twitter, has helped the company with product innovation, product expansion, customer service and building a loyal social media following of 33,000.
She notes that her target demographic largely influences their success. “Our customers use social media as an inherent part of their lives,” observes Ms. Kurtz. “If our market wasn’t as dependent on various social media tools, it wouldn’t work as well.”
Since Flirty Cupcakes are sold from a moving van rather than a brick-and-mortar store (though they recently added a dessert garage on Taylor Street), real-time communication is essential. “If we post that we’ll be at the intersection of Dearborn and Monroe but can’t find parking, we need to let our customers know which intersection we’ll actually be at,” she explains.
Mari Luangrath, who owns the cupcake delivery service Foiled Cupcakes, started using Twitter when she learned that her website wouldn’t go live for six weeks. “We don’t have a storefront, so our website was our only portal for orders,” she explains. “We had no choice but to hang out on the social networks to try to build some sort of buzz. In six weeks, we managed to amass several thousand followers who were ready to order – not because we had done any strong, targeted promotions, but because they realized that we were fun, human and interactive.”
In the last two years, more than 90 percent of Foiled Cupcakes’ business has come through social media, with over 60 percent directly from Twitter or Twitter referrals. They have surpassed their initial target revenue by 600 percent.
Another bakery owner, Teresa Ging, owner of Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique, uses social media to communicate news about seasonal cupcake flavors, gift cards, special promotions and events at her two Chicago storefront locations. Daily posts on Twitter and Facebook, she says, “remind customers about your product and company. It’s an easy way to interact with your customers.”
Cindy Kienzle, who started the Hungry Monkey Baking Company almost two years ago when she was 50, a new mom and looking for a business where she could set her own schedule, turned her chocolate chip banana bread and other baked goods into a thriving business. Her products are sold in grocery stores and on her website. She reports that Facebook has been critical to the company’s growth. “We don’t use social media to sell,” she says. “We use it to engage our customers. Our Facebook friends have embraced us, and they have done the promoting for us.”
Social media has also helped business owners get traditional media exposure that led to increased sales. Bela Gandhi, owner of Smart Dating Academy, a dating consulting service, says a Facebook query by a local TV producer led to a live segment on the station’s morning show. That TV segment, she says, “opened up a number of other great opportunities and scores of new clients.”
In the fall of 2011, Ms. Gandhi found PR success again when she entered the “A Day in the Life of an Entrepreneur” online competition sponsored by Crain’s Chicago Business by making a short video with her flip camera. Named a finalist, she blasted the news on her social media channels. “It had a significant impact on our business,” she says. Indeed, her business quadrupled between 2009 and 2011, due to both social media and the video competition.
Two successful online event directories also sing the praises of social media. “Tweeting has enabled me to ‘meet’ people I ordinarily would have a tough time reaching,” says Theresa Carter of The Local Tourist. The Twitter-effort connected Ms. Carter with an NBC producer who invited her to join the NBC-5 Street Team; her coverage of Looptopia won an Emmy.
Stephanie Green, publisher of Soleil’s To-Dos, a Chicago urban event calendar, relies on interactions with Facebook fans and friends to spread the word about the events posted on her website. Her presence and activity on Facebook have enabled her to make contacts that led to emceeing jobs at several nonprofit fundraisers.
Another social media marketing company, Pivotal Production, focuses primarily on using Twitter to grow its business. Owner Shannon Downey states she can “directly link 85 percent of the work we’re doing now to relationships formed through social networks.”
Of course, anyone in the digital sphere has special incentive to understand the power of social media. “If you own that type of business, you’d better be an active user,” says Ms. Ionescu, who prefers Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
The bottom line: If you’re a business owner tip-toeing around the edges of social media, consider adjusting your social media strategy and ramping up your messaging. “Most business owners who successfully use social media spend at least seven hours a week online, and that’s their own time, not an intern’s,” Ms. Ionescu points out. “They understand the importance of presenting an engaging, trustworthy persona and of having a direct interaction with people.”
Photograph of Foiled Cupcake’s founder Mari Luangrath.