Social media for businesses: no longer just an option

Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and YouTube — names that didn't exist a handful of years ago — are now indispensable business-survival tools.

Interactive: Social-media applications like Twtitter and Facebook aren't that different from old-fashioned methods of communication, says consultant Wendy Lou (center), seen here helping a business owner get started at a recent workshop. Photos by Jonathan Welch

Remember when small businesses were scrambling to set up Web sites — to provide an easily accessible online presence for their clients and customers? Today, these same businesses are learning they must expand beyond static Web pages and into the continuously updated stream of information otherwise known as social media.

"Today's businesses need to have a comprehensive online presence," says Gary Charles of G Social Media, based in Asheville. "That means a video outlet, such as YouTube, an updater, such as Twitter, a photo uploader, such as Flickr, social media accounts, such as Facebook or MySpace, and a blog, such as Blogger, TypePad or WordPress."

That's in addition to that Web site, which still counts as "your online corporate headquarters," according to Wendy Lou of Asheville-based Creative Imp Works. It's also in addition to the day-to-day demands of running your business.

And according to social media experts, it's not just about promoting a product or service, but also about networking and interacting. It's social.

"In social media, it's important to be a person first and a business second. The human connection is what makes it so engaging," says Kelby Carr of Carr Creations, who teaches Asheville Social Media Classes (see sidebar for more information on local classes in the field).

All a'twitter: Social media consultant Jennifer Saylor guides those new to Twitter and Facebook through the process.

Other local experts agree.

"Part of being successful in social media is not just promoting what you do, but promoting other people and businesses — being part of a community," says Lou, who teaches at Social Media Jams, a local monthly workshop series.

One Asheville business owner who was an early adopter of social media, and who feels it's added tremendous value to her business branding, is Julie Atallah, co-owner and marketing director of Bruisin' Ales beer shop.

Her Web site designer, Jose Ibarra of Applied Solutions Group, told Atallah she should start using Twitter two years ago. Initially, she said she didn't have time. Then, she started delving into the Twitterverse, though she resented the extra time and effort. Now, she refers to herself as a Twitter addict.

"I have my BlackBerry buried in my forearm," she says. "I'm the bionic woman."

She adds that customers come into Bruisin' Ales all the time who've learned about the shop via Twitter or Facebook. Atallah even offers specials only to her followers — at present, that equals about 2,200 folks on Twitter and more than 1,500 Facebook fans.

"Twitter's been an invaluable resource," Atallah says. "It's definitely increased our shipping exponentially and expanded our store brand across the country and even into Canada."

Having non-local clients can make the difference between breaking even and going broke for some small businesses. Social media give business owners an easy, free way to reach not just across the county, but across states and even around the world, notes Charles.

The experts also emphasize that building relationships makes a huge difference in how well social media work for businesses.

"You should grow your network as you would in face-to-face networking. Start slow and as your network grows, increase the intensity of your networking," says Justin Belleme of JustinBelleme.com and Roadmap to Online Success.

Of course, all this takes time.

Charles claims he can set up his clients so they only have to be online for an average of five minutes per day. He tells them to update Twitter and Facebook during that time, then once every week or so, to spend more time writing a blog post and producing and uploading video and photos.

One of his clients is interior designer Amanda Ballew of More Space Place Asheville. She started using Twitter in mid-December to "reach out to a market that we weren't reaching with our traditional advertising."

She describes that market as younger and hipper than many of her current clients — but they're still folks who are moving and buying homes. Though she's only been promoting her business via social media for a few months, Ballew says she's gotten a couple of appointments from folks who've found her on Twitter.

"I'm pretty loud on Twitter," Ballew says. "I retweet about other Asheville businesses as well. I'm trying to socialize with other businesses and to network."

Another newbie to the social media scene is Jimi Rentz, owner of Barley's Taproom & Pizza and an organizer of the Brewgrass and Beer City beer festivals.

"I like the six degrees of separation thing, but also the exponential way of getting the word out. My wife, Dawn, got me on Facebook, and I realized you can be in one place and get in touch with everyone you ever knew in your life," he says.

He's recently set up Facebook and Twitter accounts for all three of his business endeavors, and he says he's able to keep up with what's going on in these worlds better on some days than others. Like Atallah, he's mobile, so having a smart phone is key.

Rentz says he's used social media to let people know when different beers hit the taps and to communicate details about the beer festivals. He has plans to set up contests and offer deals — when he can find the time.

"The problem with social media is I have yet to see much effect from it other than people commenting that they like it," he says. "For example, on two snow days I offered a free slice for kids if they came in before 4 p.m., and we didn't give away a single slice of pizza. But I got a lot of people saying they liked the idea, and it's a good one."

Of course, Rentz didn't have many followers then. Maybe by the next snow day, he'll be giving away lots of pizza.

Businesses on Twitter

With the social-media program Twitter, users go by "handles" and "avatars" — nicknames, so to speak, which are preceded by an @ sign. Here are the handles for businesses featured in this article.

Bruisin' Ales: @bruisinales
More Space Place: @avlcustomcloset
Barley's: @barleystappizza
G Social Media: @gsocialmedia
Kelby Carr: @typeamom
Justin Belleme: @ashevillenow
Wendy Lou: @itswendylou
Jose Ibarra: @h0zae

Upcoming social media classes:

Asheville Social Media Classes: Taught by Kelby Carr, this series of classes is offered on the third Friday of each month through July. Sponsored by and held at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Cost is $50 per class (less for a multi-session pass). Information at www.avlsocialmedia.com.

Free Asheville Social Media School: Next classes will be April 23, 5-7:30 p.m. at Elaine's Piano Bar at The Grove Park Inn and May 10, 5:30-7:30 p.m., location to be announced. Sponsored by G Social Media, these classes feature a variety of local presenters in different areas of social media. Information at www.gsocialmedia.com.

Roadmap to Online Success: Justin Belleme and Paul Van Heden recently finished teaching this three-day workshop. They have yet to schedule the next one, which may not happen until August, Belleme says. Information at www.justinbelleme.com.

[Anne Fitten Glenn twitters at @edgymama and @brewgasm]

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