How to Use Social Media to Promote Your Business

I have turned an old doughnut shop into a coffee shop/bakery and frozen yogurt store. I'd like to start promoting it with Twitter and other social media, but I'm not sure exactly what I would write about to get customers to try our new shop. Can you help? —W.W., Cypress, Calif.

Your aim should be turning customers, who may stop by any convenient spot for a morning coffee, into fans who will drive past other bakeries to wait in line for your offerings, says Chris Warner, vice-president of marketing for JackBe, a small software firm based in Chevy Chase, Md. that specializes in social media marketing.

To get that kind of loyalty, of course, you'll have to deliver a superior product with terrific customer service. Social networking can't make bad coffee palatable or make your yogurt creamier, but it can spread the word quickly as you build a reputation for excellence. "Web 2.0 technologies can help you make a virtual community that keeps your business top of mind for your fans and lets your fans help you engage new prospective customers," Warner says.

Getting FeedbackCreating such a community—whether it be on Twitter, Facebook, Ning or another social networking platform—can help drive foot traffic into your store, says Denise McVey, president of Boonton (N.J.)-based advertising and marketing firm S3. Post "daily updates on your specials of the day and information about special events, such as musical acts that might be playing," she suggests. With Twitter, you can announce when a fresh batch of danish is coming out of the oven, offer special discounts, and allow customers to twitter you their takeout orders.

On the feedback side, run polls through Facebook or SurveyMonkey asking customers to rate their favorite muffin flavors or yogurt toppings. "Give every poll taker a coupon for 20% off," Warner suggests. That brings them back into your store and gives you valuable information about which products to market in future.

Along with broadcasting news about your bakery and requesting reactions to it, social networking can also help introduce you to business practices, vendors, employees, and sales prospects. For instance, connecting with other independent coffee shop owners who aren't necessarily your direct competitors can give you advice on what works and what doesn't in your industry, says Patrick Crane, vice-president of marketing at LinkedIn, in Mountain View, Calif. "You might need information on how to get a new vendor, or you're looking for someone to renovate your space. Asking questions and getting recommendations from a network of other small business owners can help out," he says.

Consider using social networks to expand your customer base beyond your retail store. "You can do title searches at LinkedIn and then ask for introductions to local human resources people or facilities managers at large companies in your area. Once you've been introduced, ask them what kinds of products their employees prefer and offer to bring in a complimentary box of muffins for them to test at their next meeting," Crane suggests. Having a personal introduction from someone in your network is much easier—and likely to be more successful— than making a cold call to generate new business, he says.

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