It’s mid-morning and Michael Mendez snaps a photo of the new beer he has just stocked in his convenience store. Within minutes, he posts it on Twitter to his 7,000 followers. If the response is typical, customers will stream in by late afternoon, asking for the rare brew.
Mendez strategically has branded his four Miami-area fuel stations as much more than places for a fill-up. Using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, he has created buzz about craft beers and other products inside the station shop, where the profit margins are higher than at the pump.
“Branding in today’s world is knowing people and relating to them,” said Mendez, whose Mendez Fuel customers often share the photos and spread the word online about his new arrivals.
In recent years, small-business owners like Mendez have turned to social media, email and mobile marketing websites to build visibility for their brands. In 2014, say experts, digital marketing is no longer simply a way to bump up brand awareness: It has become essential. With 73 percent of U.S. internet useres turning to social networking sites and 53 percent of American adults carrying a smart phone, businesses that don’t employ social network marketing may find themselves losing out to the competition.
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“If you are counting on your business to generate profit for a while or if you plan to leave it as a legacy for a family member, if you’re not branding and marketing online, you’re being irresponsible,” says Stephen Cabeza, founder of Amplification Inc, a Fort Lauderdale social media marketing company.
At a time when 85 percent of buyers go online to research purchases, successful social media marketing has the potential to generate more traffic to a website, send customers to a retail location, create awareness for a brand and build allegiance. According to a 2014 State of Marketing Report produced by ExactTarget digital marketing firm, 86 percent of the 2,500 global marketers surveyed believe social media is currently or will eventually provide financial return. “With this in mind, we expect to see marketers using social media to better boost their brand with customers,’’ wrote the report’s authors.
Already, more than two-thirds of small business owners are spending more time on social media than a year ago, according to a survey by VerticalResponse, a San Francisco-based company. Indeed, 43 percent of respondents said they spend six or more hours per week on social media activities for their businesses. They are posting to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest and Google Plus and blogs. But those who do so effectively aren’t just spending hours blasting blindly into the ether.
“Conversation is the new marketing,” said Kellie Kuecha, a Boca Raton life coach who calls herself the Brand Re-Coder. The key, she says, is to consistently post meaningful, authentic content across all of your social channels and get people to trust you and talk about your brand. You want to interact with your followers by replying to direct messages and posing questions and you want to post more of the content that you notice followers like, share and comment on the most. That could include photos, videos, graphics, illustrations or words.
By sparking a conversation, telling your story and offering something special rather than just pitching your product, you have a chance to make your company stand out and chose you instead of a competitor, Kuecha advised. “You have to use social media to attract people into your world. Once you do that, the selling process is easier.”
To tranform online engagement into profits, business owners need to study their customers’ social behaviors, advises Nate Elliott, a principal analyst with Forrester Research who helps companies develop interactive marketing strategies. Some customers might spend time on Facebook, others might spend more time reading email. “You have to understand your audience’s preferences,” he said.
Businesses also need to understand how their target audiences use social platforms. Consumers are most likely to “follow’’ a company on Facebook or Twitter after they’ve already bought from that firm — meaning some social media platforms work better for engaging and retaining customers. Others, like Google Plus, provide opportunities to reach out to prospects by influencing Google Search, where potential customers scout for offerings. Going forward, expect to see marketers also using more mobile marketing such as apps to engage customers who must break through a deluge of electronic noise as they research and make daily purchase decisions, manage personal transactions, and stay connected with brands they care about.
But before any social media marketing campaign or online branding effort, consultant Jody Johnson suggests businesses undergo a comprehensive internal evaluation. “Look carefully at your business model, so you understand the components of your business and how they work together,’’ says Johnson, owner of ActionCoach in Coral Gables. “You need to know where profitably is coming from and create a branding and social media marketing plan that will drive what is working.”
Developing such expertise is time-consuming. Still, Carlos Garcia, CEO of Nobox, a Miami social media accelerator for global brands, suggests individual business owners start out doing social media marketing themselves: “They need to get a feel for the power of building connections and seeing what works.”
Eventually, though, many businesses will need a more comprehensive strategy — and a team to implement it, says Garcia. Some get employees to help. Others outsource to professional agency at a cost of $3,000 to $20,000 per month, with the industry average settling between $4,000 and $7,000 per month, according to The Content Factory, a social media marketing and management firm.
And that’s without putting any money into the increasingly popular practice of augmenting posts and tweets with paid advertising, to increase chances that fans see your updates. Approximately 46 percent of “business leaders” said they plan to increase their social media budgets in 2014, according to a survey from StrongView, a marketing solutions provider. Facebook, for instance, has purposefully limited the number of organic “brand’’ posts that appear in newsfeeds and suggesting businesses advertise so the people who already “Like’’ your page have a better chance of seeing your message. As a result, marketers spent as much as $10 billion on Facebook ads in 2013, says Elliott.
Not surprisingly, Internet marketing, advertising and public relation firms — both nationwide and in South Florida — are sprouting up or adding divisions to help small business owners push their brand message in the online marketplace.
Cabeza, of Amplification, starts by asking a business owner his or her ideal customer: “Some will say I just need anybody to come in. To flourish, you have to look at who historically is your customer and who you would like it to be.” That demographic dictates where and how a business positions itself online. For example, the Red Bull crowd is more likely to be on Instagram, while mothers are more likely to be on Pinterest, he said.
While the monthly fee for professional management might seem expensive, keeping up with new technologies, changes to social networks and mobile takes more vigilance that some business owners can cram into already-busy schedules. For instance, Facebook recently rolled out changes to its News Feed, along with policy changes that will make it easier for marketers to stay on top of what Facebook is doing with its algorithms. “Every day there is something new we can do,’’ says Garcia. “Right now, we can re-target customers on Facebook. We couldn’t do that a while back.”
Those are among the reasons Gregg Lurie hired an agency to help him get his brand attention and keep his message consistent across social media platforms. In Feb. 2013, Lurie opened Daily Melt in Miami’s Midtown, branding it to locals as a restaurant that sells comfort — through its sandwich melts, homey atmosphere and the friendly wait staff. The menu, created by well-known Chef Allen Susser, is filled with old-fashioned grilled-cheese melts and a variety of soups and sandwiches. Lurie hired Mochee, a social media marketing firm, to engage his customers online by posting photos of the Daily Melt’s weekly specials on its social media sites — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — with an upbeat message. The strategy has drawn more than 5,000 Facebook fans, and customers often share the photos with their social networks. “We rely on customers to help us create the brand,” he said.
Lurie also has reached out to the Yelp community to encourage customers to visit and review his restaurant: “We hosted an elite ‘Yelper’ party where Chef Allen demonstrated and they wrote reviews. It was a great event to build our brand.”
In 2014, Lurie plans to open two new South Florida locations — one in Fort Lauderdale in February and the other in downtown Miami in April. He will work more closely with Mochee to measure how social media efforts actually drive business.
Joanne Vivero, owner of R & J Baby in Doral, recently moved her five-year-old business into the online space. Since 40 percent of moms buy baby furniture online, Vivero turned to Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, posting colorful photos of her European brand bibs, diaper bags, strollers and specially priced bundles of products and encouraging mothers to create wish lists and share photos. In the 12 months she has been using social media, she has seen a 15 percent increase in sales, she said.
Like most business owners, Vivero still grapples with how much time and money to put into her online branding effort. Experts say calculating the precise financial returns of online branding is tricky. Although it is possible to measure and track what people are clicking on, measurement protocols are still evolving, and determining return on investment is imprecise. The best way to gauge results, say experts, is to test various social media outlets and try new approaches.
Still, anecdotal results can be impressive; Nobox’s Garcia said when his firm launched an interactive Passport America social marketing promotional contest on Facebook for its client, Copa Airlines, the fan base increased by 133,000, visits to the airline website doubled and perceived return on investment for the campaign was 50 times the cost.
YaYa LeGrand began by branding her North Miami wine label through in person tastings at South Florida events and liquor stores, positioning it as beverage for those with refined taste, particularly women. She discovered the value of social media marketing by accident: a photo of her wine being poured at an event hosted by actress Zsa Zsa Gabor was posted on Facebook by a friend with dozens of celebrity followers. The post led to queries from a wide range of California buyers and vendors. Now, she is partnering with a distributor who can bring her wines to stores nationwide and spend the time and money to engage customers through social media marketing.
“I see the possibility to take YaYa Wine to next level,” LeGrand said. “I’m only beginning to tap into the power of the Internet.”
For Regina Leggiere’s Davie-based commercial sign company, SIGNARAMA, social media was key to surviving the Great Recession.
A marketing firm created a social media presence for her sign company and showed Leggiere how to participate. Within a few weeks, a corporate buyer who saw Leggiere’s tweet about a sign she had just finished brought SIGNARAMA a big account. Whenever she finished a job, she posted about it and linked to the customer, so that business’s own followers would see the message. too. Before long, the online chatter and replies to tweets drove up her ranking in the search engines, which led to more calls and orders.
In 2011, she sold her sign business, yielding a 2,500 percent return on investment. “I know that it was the power of social media that led me to this impressive result,” she said. Now, she helps her husband who runs a sign company in Delray Beach; that firm, too, uses a social media marketing firm: “In my opinion, it is one of least expensive ways to market your business that yields the best results.”
For business owners, testing emerging channels and platforms amid financial constraints must be ongoing.
“On one end there are businesses that are spending too much to justify return. No one wants that,” says Cabeza, who meets monthly with his clients to review analytics. “On the other end of the scale, too many business owners think social media is exciting and new and is a vast untapped landscape of consumers waiting to like your Facebook page, and that’s not true, either.”
Results require strategy, say experts.
Mendez of Mendez Fuel sees the results in the form of traffic into his convenience stores/gas stations. Because he enjoys enjoys posting and tweeting himself, Mendez watches as customers network with their friends and share or re-post his photos. “It’s powerful to see what social media has done for us,” he said. “We’ve become a destination.”
To boost business, he has created customer communities around personal interests. A craft beer enthusiast, Mendez’s brother, Andrew Mendez, suggested they stock a varied selection. They now have eight racks and a following. Each time they bring in a new beer, Mendez will post a photo on Instagram or Twitter with targeted hashtags such as #specialtybeer or #miamigasstation or the brand name. Beer enthusiasts have caught on.
“Customers will drive here as far as from Homestead to grab a beer that is rare,” Mendez said, who has four stations, located near Miami International Airport and in Coral Gables, Westchester and Kendall. His craft beer department has seen steady growth since he started promoting it via social media. And he’s getting new customers: “We had a guy call us the other day from West Palm asking us to hold for him a craft beer we had. He found us by using the hashtag of the beer.”
Meanwhile, Mendez personally enjoys participating in the cross-fit craze and noticed an interest in the Paleo diet, or “caveman’’ diet, as it’s often called. Late last year, he began selling Paleo products at his stations, spreading the work through social media: “My followers directly tagged their Paleo fanatic friends to show them what we have and before we know it, we have people coming here for a specific product.” In 2014, Mendez said he will add a juice bar and create online conversations about it: “I’m trying to lure the person I don’t’ know to come here and realize we are different.”
Fuel still makes up the bulk of his company revenue, which is why Mendez tries to keep online conversation going about that, too: “I will tweet when gas prices are going up and say something like ‘try to fill up today before higher prices go into effect.’ ”
Mendez said he has learned that customers like to know that there is a human behind a business — which is why he personally oversees online branding: “Society has become more visual. Giving my followers the ability to see what we have readily available or ask me any questions directly gives my company a more personal feel.”
Mendez said it is difficult to quantify exactly how much his efforts drive business, but he has seen station sales increase each month since he boosted his social media marketing. In gauging what works, Mendez said he seeks people using smart phones and finds more response to his Twitter and Instagram posts than paid Facebook ads.
As networks like Instagram learn to target users’ by interest, he expects to benefit: “I think it’s in our best interest to be right in front of customers.”