Response to the question: Can Social Media Save Local Business?

As a small business owner and former Massachusetts resident, I read Chris Brogan’s recent post Can Social Media Save a Local Business? with great interest. Life Raft

A number of my friends have lost their businesses recently and it is conceivable that someday I might be faced with the same situation as John at the Simply Gourmet Bistro. It crushes me to think that John probably put his everything into getting the bistro going only to hit hard times. What’s even worse, he is not alone!!

How many people out there are facing the same challenges, right now, today?

In fact, I have spent many a sleepless night wondering how social media could actually assist me, if for some reason my business hit down times due to the economy or other circumstances.

The trouble is, social media is about giving, helping, and providing value to whichever community (Twitter, FaceBook, StumbleUpon, etc) you happen to participate in.

However, social media, as a tool for the small business owner, has to help us to bring customers through the door. If not, we are just blindly swinging the stick at the piñata.

In an effort to assist John and his Simply Gourmet Bistro, (my friend) Jarkko Laine and I decided to brainstorm and come up with a couple of ideas that we think might be able to help. Of course, herein lies the beauty of social media and blogging…I live and own a business in the Caribbean and Jarkko lives in Finland. Yet here we are, attempting to provide some input and assistance for a business owner in Massachusetts.

Can social media actually save a local business?

I am not sure if, as a singular tool, social media can actually save a business, unless the business owner already has some sort of large following that could rally in support at a moments notice. That being said, when combined with a comprehensive and well rounded “business survival” strategy, social media provides a tremendous avenue for (mostly) free marketing, advertising, and promotion.

Below, Jarkko and I have come up with some suggestions for John and potentially any other small business owner. The recommendations are a mix of good old-fashioned networking, some social media, and using the power of the web for simple market research:

  • Peabody Property Viewer – the city of Peabody has done John a huge favor by providing building and parcel level map information online with the Peabody Property Viewer. The property viewer provides an unmatched market research tool with location based demographic data, specific parcel usage, and ownership information. John should use the property viewer to create a buffer zone that outlines the radius of his customer base, as determined by their average driving distance. If we assume that most of John’s customers come from within a 5-mile radius, he could run a simple query to select and highlight key businesses (with potential customers) that he would like to target, which fall in that buffer area. Once done he could also use Twitter Search and Google to find out if the selected businesses are on Twitter, FaceBook, are blogging, etc and start conversing with them. (Please note; I am sure the Peabody Community Development Office Tel: 978-538-5706 could also help with this simple GIS query.)

 

  • Make it personal - the pictures of the Simply Gourmet Bistro on Chris Brogan’s site show “real” people at the opening ceremony. The personal photos are powerful and they get potential customers interested in what this bistro is because they convey a story and pull you in. The Bistro is a small town gourmet place, and with that comes all the benefits, such as, knowing the people, being yourself, etc. That could be a differentiation factor for the web site as well. Currently, the site still looks quite homogenous and the same as every other restaurant out there. Perhaps John could:

* Change the front-page picture to something that shows the restaurant and John serving his customers.

* Tell stories about the sandwiches: how did you come up with them?

* Tell the story of how the business came to be.

* Let online users submit sandwich ideas.

* Put up pictures of customers enjoying the sandwiches.

 

  • Entrepreneur Roundtables – John has been able to pursue his vision, achieve his dream, and undertake the necessary hard work that comes with any worthwhile goal by creating the Simply Gourmet Bistro. One thing I have learned after the past couple of years as a small business owner (and reading many blogs) is; there are many, MANY people out there who are career renegades and would like to become entrepreneurs. But they don’t know where to begin or how to go about it. John has done it all! He’s secured funding, created a business plan, sourced materials, and dealt with staff and government agencies. A nice way to increase his loyal customer base would be to start offering a weekly “Entrepreneur Roundtable Discussions” and help to educate wannabe entrepreneurs on the process of starting a business. He could also open the discussion and let other business owners in the area be keynote guests. Again, not necessarily social media, but all of the discussions could be videoed, uploaded to YouTube, and made available as podcasts. 

 

  • Email Campaign – as we all know, there are no magic bullets and sometimes it can be difficult to ask for assistance. However, John could potentially benefit from having his regular customers, friends, and family (i.e. his “fans”) run an email campaign and tell anybody who will listen how great the place is. The email need not be spammy, and could even be sent out on an individual basis, as opposed to an impersonal group email. Again, John has a story to tell, so let’s get it out there. Make the email compelling and keep it brief, to the point, and professional. He might also wish to create an actual email newsletter and promote it at the shop (print joining instructions on receipts or wrapping paper, etc.). As an added bonus, John could write about the process and experience on his blog.

 

  • YouTube Interviews or Daily Photo – I am not sure which customers are John’s key demographic. But he might want to consider doing “man on the street” style interviews on a daily basis with 3 or 4 of his customers that fit his target market. They could be funny, serious, political, or strictly about their experience at his shop. Once completed, they are easily uploaded to YouTube. Either way, the interviewees have friends and I am sure a good percentage of them will want to show off their discussion. It might not create rapid-fire word of mouth, but it’s cost effective (free). If that is too much work, perhaps John could consider doing a “customer of the day” daily photo. The person could be featured on his blog and the daily photos could be archived on FLICKR.

 

  • Blog Club – now that he has seen the power of social media, John might like to create a Blog Club that can meet at his shop. He could initially solicit local bloggers to attend (and encourage them to write about it), and similar to a standard book club, they could discuss two or three blogs a week.

 

  • Social Media & Press – John has the potential for an amazing press release. Look at all of the international attention he has garnered from one Chris Brogan Twitter message and blog post. At last count the original blog post had over 80 suggestions for John and I did not bother to count “retweets.” He could easily draft up a story around this whole event and the power of social media and deliver it to local news outlets. John could also sign up for Pitch Engine’s free press release service to get the word out about how social media came to his aid. He might also want to sign up for HARO and start replying to some of those reporters who are looking for businesses that are being affected by the economy.

What’s really cool is that the John has already started his social media experiments. He has a blog and a Twitter profile with a hundred or so followers. So it seems that he is the kind of guy who is prepared to use the Internet and social media to market his stuff.

To John, I hope you find some useful nuggets here. And to any other struggling business owner I wish you the best of luck!

Do YOU have any other social media or marketing suggestions for John and other struggling business owners?

(Please note: If you would like to continue the discussion, feel free to follow Jarkko or Me  (Mark Hayward) over on Twitter, and don’t forget to subscribe to the RSS Feed)

image source: janacakes

6 Responses to Response to the question: Can Social Media Save Local Business?

  1. Ron says:

    I think lots of folks will find this helpful, as I get this question a lot from people who wonder about social media and its ability to help them weather a storm in a local business and want to know more about leveraging it. I think there are a wealth of free tools out there for the business owner who wants to use them to stay ahead of the competition when they might not have the same resources as a well heeled competitor. But it all comes back to something simple — making impressions and being great at what you do.

  2. I agree with your statement, “I am not sure if, as a singular tool, social media can actually save a business, unless the business owner already has some sort of large following that could rally in support at a moments notice.”

    Having run a local business in the past, most ideas for implementing social media are ones that I’d put on the priority list as “2nd priority” or even “3rd priority.” Social media for a small startup local business is like trying to sift through a haystack (hundreds of thousands of people worldwide) to find a needle (people close enough to actually visit and buy from them). It’s going to be a lot of effort to find very few customers. Traditional marketing is much better suited for such businesses.

    Social media is not a lifejacket that you can send to a drowning man. Social media is more of a luxury for a local small business that is short on money and time, but needs customers who physically walk in the door. For a business with a Web component, social media is a very high priority, of course, but it’s different for the local startup — until that local business has achieved a steady state of profitability so it has the leeway to invest in lower priority marketing activities.

    However, I really like your idea of trying to get local bloggers to frequent the establishment. The idea could be expanded to include holding Meetups. By reaching out to local Meetup leaders and local bloggers, and welcoming them with open arms, it will get people in the door.

    In the end that’s all that will matter to them if they want to keep the doors open — get people in the door as fast as possible.

  3. Joe Jacobi says:

    Thanks for the post, Mark. Always enjoy your blog.

    Seth Godin wrote recently about the idea of real estate agents experiencing a slow period could start up an electronic newsletter. Local, engaging, and fluid. Similarly, I think you’re YouTube/Man On The Street idea as a tool to deliver news/opinions about the community/its residents could offer an effective opportunity for John and his customers to connect with other locals by filling a gap not being filled by more traditional media in his area. John and/or his ccore customers highlight personal elements of the community important to him/them. Or weigh in on issues being talked about around the restaurant. Ultimately, John’s place becomes a hub of authenticity, a pretty good word to have associated with your dining establishment.

    http://www.JoeJacobi.com
    http://www.Twitter.com/JoeJacobi
    http://www.YouTube.com/JacobiJoe

  4. Mark says:

    A very useful post…much information! thanks for this!

  5. Ron Amundson says:

    Social media provides a sounding board to bounce ideas around on a world wide basis, and thus allow some level of confidence in what works and what doesn’t even in local level marketing. Thus, even though its initial customer pull is very limited, it is likely it can prevent one from making some huge mistakes, ie learning from others what works and what doesn’t.

    For example, to invest in radio or tv ads is not a short term thing, no matter what the media sales people try to say. It requires substantial investment and time. It can be reasonably effective over the long haul, with the right business, and the right market… but very few have the capital and time to pull it off, and thus many small businesses either get taken to the cleaners with an ad or two, or completely ignore it down the road, which may not be such a good idea either.

    As far as an idea… the press thing and blog clubs are great, but how about in the shorter term, perhaps John could speak at a chamber of commerce function as to his experiences. Its a small time investment, but it would create a lot of visibility for him, and if he leveraged the follow up, it could well bring in some new customers as well.