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I am all for Return On Investment (ROI).

However, defining ROI in any small service business, particularly in marketing, can be incredibly difficult to be even remotely useful. Most businesses don’t bother except when it is easy. But for some reason, when it comes to social media, ROI is mission critical.

Why?

You can place an ad for discounted services, with a coupon, running for a month, and a unique web address, and  a unique phone number, and track that (but honestly how many actually do this?) But how can you track the person who becomes aware of your business through that ad, spots your sign one day while driving by, and then six months later needs and uses your services unrelated to the ad?

What is the ROI of your fax machine?

What is the ROI of customer service?

What is the ROI of a strong brand?

How do you place a value on communicating with a significant proportion of your clients every day?

Most businesses consider word of mouth one of the most important forms of promotion. It is essentially free and it is highly effective. With social media, we have the opportunity to insert our businesses into the “word of mouth” of our customers, and thereby their friends, and their friends friends. Why would you not get involved and take advantage of that?

Facebook for my business probably takes up 15 minutes of my day on average. An email, or even a call by the time I’ve documented it, to an upset client can easily take an hour. Should I not deal with an upset client when I don’t have to because the ROI is lousy? Yes, you can place a value on a client and on retaining that client. You can even track that you do get some clients from Facebook, but you may also get clients because you have an email address or a telephone number. When was the last time that anyone figured out the ROI of their email system? Even when buying a new phone system most businesses to not justify it with ROI, but rather than as the cost of doing business.

Small businesses often look up to companies such as Nike and Apple and see their devoted, and almost rabid, fan bases as evidence of marketing in action. I would argue, however, that companies like Apple and Nike create devoted fan bases is by being approachable and interacting with their clients – Apple in particular. I’m not the greatest Steve Jobs fan, but there are lots of examples of Steve taking the time to reply to ordinary consumers and being very interested in what they had to say. HP, Dell, et al. for a number of years, sold dramatically more computers than Apple, but it was Apple who held Mac World every year. Nike became cool because they did not go after deals, they went after people who actually used their shoes – athletes. They engaged their most high profile target market.

Of course, there is a lot of other marketing involved, but remember Apple’s most famous ad only ran once in most markets. Apple, and Nike for that matter, opened their own stores that operate on a quite a different model from other retail outlets. There is some argument that this was to help control the customer experience, but I also feel it was to be able to respond, and engage, with customers. Like all companies, they do not always get it right, but I do think that it is the willingness to attempt true engagement, and a real concern for the customer experience, that breeds fierce loyalty.

Social media is not a strategy – engagement, however, is.

So how to do social media and get some results and some traction?

To me, a major issue for small businesses is when they are on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, YouTube, and are doing all of them badly. Focus on one, and only one, and do it well. Then you can move on to another one.

Create things,or provide a service, using social media that other people will value.

Share other people’s content sparingly.

Self promotion has to have value, or at least not look like self promotion.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your fan base or ask them to share.

Drive fans to your website, or blog, from places like Facebook or YouTube not the other way round.

Pick your social media sites carefully. In my opinion, YouTube, for example, is very useful and can expose you to an enormous audiences, but the attention span is fleeting and the sense of community is almost non-existent. Embed videos in your site or page. Facebook works for my business and my previous business. Twitter does not. However, Twitter will almost certainly work for my new business, and it works for me personally. This has a lot to do with the small towns versus large cities and the  nature of my business – it may well be different for yours. Google+ has some personal value, and some SEO benefits, but has little real world value at this point in time in my opinion. But it does look very pretty!

Numbers of likes or followers are pretty irrelevant. It is the level of engagement that counts. I’d much rather have two hundred relevant, and engaged, fans or followers than 6,000 just making up the numbers. As someone much smarter than me once said: “If you believe business is built on relationships, make building them your business.”

And finally, don’t cross post, post from one social network to another, unless you really know what you are doing.

And even then just don’t do it.

Please.

I beg of you.

I see people I respect and who should really know better, cross posting and it is counterproductive. Content for Facebook does not translate well to Twitter because of the character limit. Twitter’s special characters are not understood by most Facebook users.

There are social networks where cross posting seems to work pretty well, but again, it is a black art, and if you are questioning the ROI of any social network, cross posting from a different network is not any kind of an investment.

To sum up this long, and sprawling post, the ROI of social media is the ROI of engagement. If talking to existing and new customers is not for you then I wish you well.

That just means more customers for the rest of us.

Many thanks to my friends and colleagues on the Marking in Veterinary Medicine LinkedIn group for the conversation that this post was cannibalized from. Also many thanks to Ali Burden-Blake (@inkspotsocial) for her excellent blog post: “Stop! Why using social media won’t work for your veterinary practice.” which inspired the conversation in the first place.

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This week, I take pot shots at webinars and why I think they are a waste for speaker, and the virtual attendee.

Webinars, where a speaker presents over the Internet, at a predetermined time to an audience sitting at home or at their desks, have always seemed to be a classic example of having your cake and eating it too. By the way – that expression makes no sense whatsoever. If I’m having cake you better believe that I want to eat it!

Anyway, I digress…

The problem with webinars is that they have all the disadvantages of actually going to see someone speak, with none of the advantages. The timming of the webinar is decided by the speaker, or organizer. The transfer of information is limited to that timing window and whatever notes are issued.

From the speaker side, webinars offer the possibility of actual interaction with participants. However, because the interaction is one way, unless initiated by the viewer, the speaker has no idea as to how well the presentation is going and therefore how to tailor it to address potential issues.

I also cannot help shaking the notion that webinars are, for the most part, the lazy way out. If online delivery is what is required, let’s have proper content. Presentations that can be downloaded, shared, and watched again and again on the viewers schedule. YouTube, Slideshare, or even PowerPoint all make this very easy.

While saying all this, I do think there is great value in physical meetings and presentations- particularly for the conversations that happen before and after the meeting. Social media, is an excellent way of approximating this offline interaction of a physical meeting- online, but the realtime contraints of a webinar don’t really lend themselves to this interaction.

Plus, who doesn’t need more great content.

So Facebook and Twitter, which we looked at last week, are now part of your lexicon, what now?

There are other social media tools out there which can be of significant benefit. For Business to Client (B2C) businesses such as veterinarians, Facebook and Twitter are the ones to be using. However, having a strategy for some of the other sites can set you apart from your competitors and provide some interesting opportunities.

Foursquare

A personal favorite of mine, Foursquare is a location based social media tool with game elements. What does all that mean? Well, Foursquare allows users to “Check-in” to businesses and other venues using their smart phone’s GPS functionality. By “Checking-in,” users of the service let friends, via the service itself or by sharing on Facebook and / or Twitter. know where they are and why they are there. The game element comes from trying to rack up the most check-ins, and there by points and “badges,” than your friends. Users of the service can also compete with strangers for the title of “Mayor” of businesses or locations. The Mayor title does not mean anything other than bragging rights and more points when checking in. Badges can sometimes be difficult to get and so the competition can drive behavior. An example of this is the “Gym Rat” badge, that can only be achieved by checking in at a gym 10 times in 30 days.

Foursquare Badges

A selection of Foursquare badges

 Businesses can offer specials to Foursquare users when they check-in. Chilli’s, for example, offers free chips and salsa to anyone checking in on Foursquare – customers just show their smart phone to their server. Businesses may also reward the mayor of their business, making the title more coveted and therefore create competition around their brand.

 The grand theory of Foursquare is that it creates loyalty. If users have a choice between two businesses, one of whom there trying to become mayor of, they will choose that business or one is running a special for Foursquare users. Users of Foursquare can also leave tips, good and bad, about locations helping other users to choose where they might want to eat – for example. Because it is location based, it only offers places that are nearby, and allows the user to filter the results by type. This solves the information overload that can occur if smart phone users just trying to use Google.

Foursquare definitely has the potential to create a community of loyal users, and it has personal benefits (I use it to help keep track of my expenses!) However, the user base is small compared to other social media sites – particularly outside of major metropolitan areas. There are a number of other competitors in the location based world, the largest of whom is Facebook Places. The advantage of Facebook places is that it is part of Facebook, but it lacks a lot of the game elements that makes Foursquare fun and does not have the same controls on sharing.

Foursquare and other location based services have come under fire for the potential safety implications of letting your social media “friends” know where you are. This has been way overblown and as long as users are sensible, not creating a venue called “home” and checking into it for example, location based services will be around for a long time to come.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn, is often called the professional Facebook and with good reason. Like Facebook, LinkedIn revolves around a profile. The difference is that your LinkedIn profile is essentially your resume. You can find mine here. Users of LinkedIn can then make connections with current, and former, colleagues to create a network. It is then possible to reach out to colleagues of colleagues more easily because you know which of your network knows them. LinkedIn has an introduction feature specifically for this. It is also possible to recommend, and get recommend, which also then appears on your profile.

Mike's LinkedIn Profile

Part of my LinkedIn Profile

Groups on LinkedIn are pretty much just like other web forums, but by being directly in LinkedIn it is possible to be a member of large numbers of different groups, on different subjects, without having to login to multiple sites. The additional functionality of being able to make connections that can help you professionally in the real world is obvious.

 A questions section does pretty much what you’d expect – allows for users to post questions and then other users to answer them. The advantage that LinkedIn has over other sites with a similar model, such as Quora, is that you are able to research the person giving the answer to see whether they know what they are talking about. You also then have a mechanism for connecting with them.

 A recent, and extremely innovative feature from LinkedIn has been news. This allows users to browse and share news items with their connections based on popularity within professional categories. It also allows users to share these news stories via Twitter – expanding the reach of your network yet again.

 LinkedIn does allow companies to have their own profiles, a bit like pages on Facebook, and this is interesting from a recruitment perspective. Groups are also being used successfully for recruitment and many feature a jobs section. LinkedIn also recently launched an “apply via LinkedIn” button that can be used for online job postings outside of the main LinkedIn site.

LinkedIn is a business to business tool (B2B), rather than the B2C tool that Facebook, Foursquare, and Twitter can be; however, don’t be surprised if LinkedIn does not become more and more a factor in recruitment of even minor posts in organizations. LinkedIn does have many issues (their mobile app is hopeless for anything other than news for example), but is a great professional tool for anyone interested in their career, or profession.

YouTube

YouTube is the video sharing site on the web and although being social it not at its core, it is still social media. Users uploaded material which they, and other users, can then share and comment on. Users can even create their own channels of material making it easier for other users to find similar videos. YouTube also has a number of great tools allowing you to embed a video directly into a website or blog. Video dramatically increases your website’s visibility to search engines, like Google and clients love it – a win all round!

Where YouTube really comes into its own, however, is that it is very easy for a video to go viral – spread around the internet like a virus. Of course, the video has to have some kind of merit; be funny, very dramatic, or even just be very bad, but if your brand is attached to this video it can be great publicity or almost zero cost. For example, it is not unusual for clips of TV shows on YouTube to have dramatically higher ratings that on the channels they were produced for!

Above is a great example of a viral pet video – 10 1/2 million views as of this writing and massive mainstream media attention for Denver’s owners. All from a video shot upon getting home and finding someone got into the cat treats!

 A great test of YouTube’s power is to pick any subject you like and search for a video on it at YouTube. Your are almost guaranteed that someone has shot and posted a video on that very subject. Thank you Corey for showing me this!

 Video production is really outside the realm of this already overly long post, but it is simple, very low cost and an extremely effective way to market your business.

Some of these social media tools may appeal to you, and other may not. There is definitely a take it or leave it feel to the services that we have talked about today but it is important to understand that to not be involved in social media, particularly Facebook, Twitter and to an extent Foursquare does not mean that your brand and business are not affected by these mediums. Your clients are using these tools and so might your competitors you should at least have an awareness of what is being said and why. The genie is out of the bottle and without getting involved, it is possible for you to loose influence over your brand – the control probably went some time ago as it is now the customer who ultimately defines what your brand means.

Next week, a change of pace: Up to your neck in traditional media!

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