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Features - Briefcase

People are talking - and the conversations are happening online.

April 14, 2010

You don’t need to be a computer wizard to start using social media – really. “It’s about people, not the technology,” says Jeff Korhan, a blogger and new media marketer who specializes in helping green industry firms improve Web visibility, reputation and referrals. 

If you know how to carry on dialogue without hard selling, if you know how to listen and ask questions, then you can do social media.

“People get hung up with learning the technology and they forget they’ve got 20, 30, 40 years of business experience, and that’s really what should be used to tap into the marketplace to let people know who you are, what you’re all about and how you do things differently,” Korhan adds.

But rather than networking in person, Korhan maintains that joining the online dialogue occurring on social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter is a critical part of reaching out to people today. “You can build your business on word-of-mouth – that’s fine,” he says. “But the problem is, you are limiting your capability to grow and connect with people in the future if you are not using social media.”

People shop online, they visit ratings sites to get recommendations for products and services, they meet friends on social networks and they grow business relationships there.

“I believe that social media is transforming marketing and how operate our businesses,” Korhan says. “There is a major shift going on in the economy, the business world and society that is making everything more human-centric, more about people.”

Korhan compares the adoption of social media to the domination of cell phones as a key communication tool. “Can you get by without one?” he asks. “Yes. But you’ll be less in touch with people. I think we’re still at the front end of social media, and there are more people out there who aren’t using it than who are, so there is still plenty of time to get involved.”

This month, Lawn & Landscape spoke to three firms to learn how they use social media to build customer relationships and market their businesses in a competitive environment.

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Small but powerful

Thomas Holland sums up Facebook as a social media tool for business in a simple, selfless way: “It’s about connecting people with good people.”

Stack Landscape

Principal: Thomas Holland, president and CEO

Location: Tallahassee, Fla.

Established: 2007 2009

Revenues: $50,000

Customers: 50% residential; 50% commercial

Services: lawn maintenance and installation

Employees: 3

Connect with Stack
You can find Stack Landscape and its president, Thomas Holland, at twitter.com/Stacklandscape, through the company’s site at www.stacklandscape.com and on Facebook by searching “Stack Landscape.”

“Word of mouth is one of our biggest promotion outlets, so we tap into that through social media,” he adds, explaining that Stack Landscape has a “fan page,” which is a separate Facebook profile dedicated to the business; and Holland has a personal profile page he also uses for business purposes, by posing status updates about interesting projects the crew completes.

As for the “connecting good people” part of his strategy, Holland is less worried about promoting his business directly than he is about promoting business in general. If a Facebook or Twitter connection posts a request for a painter, plumber or any type of service professional, Holland chimes in with a suggestion.

“Twitter has been a key way for us to connect the dots for people,” he says. “Then, when they come across a landscape need, they’ll remember that Stack Landscape helped them out before.”

This aspect of relationship selling is key to using social media effectively for business. Blatant self-promotion is a turn-off to people. Facebook visitors don’t want a sales pitch, they want advice, information, fun facts – anything but an in-your-face commercial.

“Form your strategy around engaging with people and really putting yourself in their shoes,” Holland advises. “It’s easy to post information about your business, but at the end of the day, you want to engage your customer.”

But how?

Holland’s blog, housed on his Web site, is one method of engaging customers in conversation online. And he makes time for this by writing a year’s worth of posts in advance, then using a tool called HootSuite that automatically posts blogs based on a schedule Holland programs. The tool is easy to use, he says – and it also works for Facebook status updates and Twitter “tweets.”

Holland loads status updates into the program up to a year in advance, planning his content based on the season and typical weed and disease pressures his customers will face in the Florida panhandle. HootSuite not only sends out the posts, it tracks how many users click on a link that is provided within that post. For example, if Holland posts a Facebook status update saying, “Check out the latest blog post,” with a link, HootSuite will record how many visitors actually click on that link and land on the Stack Landscape site – the ultimate goal.

“It takes a while to write a year’s worth of (content), but once it’s in place, you can sit back and measure it,” Holland says.

Of course, Holland chimes in with unplanned status updates and tweets. After all, the key is to talk to customers online, and this requires regular check-ins to the site to moderate activity. For instance, when a gentleman inquired about one of Holland’s blog posts on how a pond attracts wildlife (the man remarked that wildlife will eat your pond fish), Holland was able to quickly respond online and turn this potentially negative remark into a dialogue that left the customer feeling like he was participating in the lawn care process.

Participation is the point of social media. Meanwhile, Holland finds that using his personal Facebook page is as effective, if not more so, than using the business fan page to reach people. Because Stack Landscaping is a smaller firm, people relate him, personally, to the business. “It seems to be more effective when I go out and network with people and they find out that we do landscaping instead of approaching them (the other way around),” he says. 
 
As for Twitter, Holland says this tool has been a way to “follow” with property managers and, again, connect them with “good people.”

This year, Stack Landscape’s strategy for social media is to continue measuring results from the business fan page and continue working on ways to link people from social media sites to the company Web site, where they can sign up for services.

“We are finding that people usually sign up for services because, somewhere along the way, they heard about us through a friend,” Holland says. “That tells me that engaging people from a human/personal perspective is much more effective than a company/informative perspective.”

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It's all connected
A dynamic blog and connections through Twitter have opened up a world of business possibilities.

Greayer Design Associates

Principal: Rochelle Greayer

Location: Harvard, Mass.

Established: 2002 2009

Revenues: $150,000-$300,000

Customers: 50% residential; 50% commercial

Services: landscape design and commercial properties

Employees: 3

It all started with a desire to drive more traffic to her Web site. So Rochelle Greayer, principal of Greayer Design Associates, launched her Studio G blog, which in the last year has taken on “a life of its own,” she says.

“I’ve even taken on advertising and let it become its own revenue stream,” Greayer adds, noting that the $200 per month the blog brings in isn’t big money, but it’s something. Besides, her intent for the blog – which is housed on her site and functions as a portal robust with content – was to improve search engine optimization (SEO) of her Web site: findability. Also, she was looking for a tool to house the piles of catalogs, vendor samples and other paper that lands on her desk.

“To me, the blog structure where you can categorize topics and include whatever you want – links, pictures – would help me keep track of all this and organize it all,” Greayer says.

But quickly, the blog grew into much more. She gained readers – fast. When she joined Twitter and started following other industry professionals and businesspeople, more people found her blog (she provides links on her Twitter posts), and the more traffic she gained.Then people she didn’t even know began to follow her on Twitter.

And then Twitter grew into more than a vehicle to drive people to the blog, which sends people to her Web site. “I’m meeting a lot of colleagues and interfacing with people I wouldn’t get to meet otherwise,” Greayer says of Twitter.

For instance, she posted a remark on Twitter that she was considering trying a different design software. “Within minutes, another landscape architect in Boston chimed in and said, ‘I’m doing the same thing. Let’s work through it together.’

“I can’t overstate the networking (advantage) of social media,” Greayer says. “It’s so much better than any other networking I’ve tried.”

Exciting business opportunities have cropped up because of the connections Greayer makes through Twitter and her blog. For one, Greayer was asked to collaborate on a book project. Also, she “met” an editor on Land8Lounge, a social networking site for landscape architects, and eventually landed a regular column in Landscape – Middle East magazine. “I e-mailed her a one-liner … I write this blog, let me know if you’re interested,” Greayer says. “And off we went.”

Greayer has received requests for proposals, but most of them come from individuals who live out of state. She hasn’t taken up these opportunities, but she does link people with resources whenever she can. “I’m able to put two people together for their business, and I think that all comes back to you somehow, somewhere,” she says.

Despite all the good, social media does present challenges. One for Greayer is Facebook: “I’m struggling with it as far as business,” she says, noting she uses this site for posting pictures of family and making personal connections only. While colleagues and people who read her blog have sent her “friend requests,” she doesn’t feel obligated to accept them. “I’m taking them on a one-by-one basis,” she says.

Another tough part of all this is time. But Greayer has put systems in place to make blogging more efficient. She developed an editorial schedule for her blogs: Mondays she writes about garden destinations; Tuesdays she dedicates to plants; Wednesdays she features another industry professional; and so on.

Now, she’s working on a strategy to attract more in-bound links to drive traffic and continue to elevate her online image. She has also considered inviting guest bloggers to write posts on her site.

How has all this paid off? When a magazine asked Greayer to advertise by enticing her with a stat that its site gets 6,000 page views a month, she realized how big-time her own blog was, with at least 50,000 page views a month.

“You can create a lot of traffic on your own if you’re honest with people,” she says. “Be yourself, be honest, be sincere in who you are and what you’re passionate about.”

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Getting your house in order
Establishing a robust Web site was step one before Weed Man started ‘socializing’ readily on Facebook.

Weed Man

Principal: Jennifer Lemcke, chief operating officer, Weed Man U.S.A.

Location: More than 100 U.S. franchises

Established: 1970

2009 Revenues: $34 million

Customers: 95% residential; 5% commercial

Services: lawn care

Before Weed Man tip-toed into social media primetime – Facebook – the franchisor took a good, hard look at its national Web site and decided to hunker down and work on “home” first. That essentially meant creating a neighborhood of sites: one national portal that would guide visitors to individual franchisee sites based on a location finder tool.

“We had one Web site that was representing all 100 U.S. franchisees, and for us to have a local presence, we needed to revisit the infrastructure,” says Jennifer Lemcke, COO, Weed Man U.S.A.

The company wasn’t going to bombard Facebook with flashy status updates or populate Twitter with umpteen posts until it was sure the destination where “friends” and “followers” would eventually land was up to par. And that meant a substantial Web site overhaul and investment of more than $200,000.

“My main goal is to allow franchisees to get their own presence in their local markets – to protect the Weed Man brand and create an environment for franchisees to push up their own Web sites,” Lemcke says.

With this infrastructure in place and phase two – implementing online customer scheduling and pay tools – in progress Weed Man is figuring out how to engage, educate and reward customers through a national Facebook site.

The key, Lemcke emphasizes, is to treat Facebook as another tool in the marketing arsenal for deepening customer relationships – and eventually, converting prospects into clients.

But like any firm that’s entering the social media game, Weed Man is not quite sure how the plan to connect with customers online will work out. There’s the challenge of managing time and location – a lawn care report in Mississippi is irrelevant to “friends” in Maine. And there’s the question of return on investment, which Lemcke admits is not clear at this stage.

Finally, there’s the everyone’s-doing-it pressure that causes many business owners to jump into social media with no real goal in mind. Lemcke admits that Weed Man wants to be one of the “everybody.” But the company’s ideas for social media are clear: “We want to educate,” Lemcke says, suggesting two strategies: YouTube videos with helpful how-to information, and photo contests encouraging people to engage on Facebook.

“But how do you make it so your time spent brings money back?” she says.

For now, the value of a strong and sticky presence – meaning a Facebook site that people want to return to time and again – is ROI for time spent using the tool. Because, without this method of engaging customers, a business could be blocking out an entire customer universe that wants to engage on social media networks.

Still, Lemcke stands by the strategy of making sure the Web site is set before branching out to social media. “You want people to go back and forth between social media and your Web site,” she explains.

Now that Weed Man is delving into Facebook, Lemcke says the company will look for ways to reward customers for their business. Status updates will invite people to post pictures or share their favorite garden tips. The tone will be light, conversational, neighborly. Because the best thing a business can do online is keep it real.

“You have to be yourself,” Lemcke says, offering this advice to any business venturing into social media. “You want to create trust, and explain why your service is necessary without selling. Give them information and help them understand why it’s important.” 

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