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Follow, Like, Retweet, Thrive

How local businesses use social media: the obvious and the surprising

by Stephen Leon on March 20, 2014


“I’m always surprised by how many people tweet when they’re drunk—myself included,” says Matt Baumgartner, owner of a half-dozen restaurant-bars in the Capital Region. “But I’ve found that if you mention the word “tequila” in a tweet, it gets “Retweeted” or “Liked” like crazy.

Baumgartner, who runs Bombers Burrito Bars in Albany, Troy and Schenectady, along with three other establishments along Albany’s North Broadway, was responding to the Metroland survey question: What has been the most surprising thing about interacting with customers/followers on social media?

Businesses and business owners using social media is nothing new—in fact it is now considered a standard part of any modern business’ marketing strategy. But there is no consensus on how any given business should use such vehicles as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc, or even which ones to use to produce the best results. Oh, and speaking of results, while social media is used by some businesses to simply drive sales, others have very different ideas on how and why they want to reach their followers online.

We reached out to about 20 local businesses with our survey, and heard back from nine of them. They were asked the following six questions:

1. Do you regularly use social media for your business, and if so, on which sites are you active?

2. How do you use social media? (For example, to aggressively drive sales; to inform followers/customers of business news and events; to offer customers/followers professional tips and insights; to engage them in conversations about the community; etc.)

3. What has been the most positive thing about using social media for your business?

4. What has been the most disappointing thing, and/or what have you stopped doing on social media?

5. What has been the most surprising thing about interacting with customers/followers on social media? 

6. What have you learned about your business and/or your customers through social media?

Not surprisingly, Facebook and Twitter were the most often cited by our respondents, with Instagram a close third (Pinterest, Foursquare, LinkedIn and a few others showed up once or twice). Overall, these businesses seemed to feel the most strongly about the power and reach of Facebook; several say they get the most response there. Or, as Jeff Buenau of Buenau’s Opticians in Delmar says he has learned about his customers through social media: “That they are all on Facebook.”

(This reality may or may not change soon; while the demographic for most of these businesses is 21 and older, this writer happens to know that many teenagers are actually leaving Facebook. It’s hard to imagine such a behemoth crashing down, but we shall see.)

Many businesses say they use social media for the most obvious of reasons: to promote themselves and drive sales, to introduce new products, specials and events, to keep up a lively conversation with their customers, to get feedback, and to continually reinforce their brand. But that’s not all.

For example, Maria K. Hebert, of Tomboy Cheerleading in Albany, says, “Our main goal is to reach new members. . . . [but] we also are working to advocate for pit bulls and have taken on the breed as our mascot, so we share informative posts about the false information about pit bulls that is out there. With our Instagram account, we are able to connect with the younger members of our organization who do not utilize Facebook, and we share positive self-esteem building posts to engage them and be interactive with them and their friends.”

Marc Renson, of Ambition café in Schenectady, adds, “I promote specials, post reviews, promote Proctors as we receive a large number of guests going to shows, celebrity sightings (as we see a lot), post encouraging thoughts or ideas. I also post strange happenings that will make the reader laugh and engage a conversation.”

And Vic Christopher of Lucas Confectionery in Troy uses his personal Twitter account “mostly to highlight other Troy businesses. Also, I am active on Yelp, writing five-star reviews for my colleagues. By promoting each other, everyone in Troy will have more success.”

Many of the answers to questions No. 3 and 4—most positive and most disappointing—have to do with feedback. Customer feedback “is really useful,” says Sharon Fenno, owner of Circles in Stuyvesant Plaza.

“The instant feedback—when we’re excited about something we just made, it’s nice to get a response when we post the new card design, tee, or poster,” say Troy Cloth & Paper’s Taylor Gillis and Ben Karis-Nix. “The feedback definitely helps guide us toward what types of items to create, and what kind of themes or styles folks are interested in.”

While “posting on social media doesn’t directly translate into instant sales on our webstore,” they say, “it does raise consciousness about what we do.”

Matt Baumgartner is more blunt about the disappointment of not getting a response: “The most disappointing thing is when you tweet something you’re excited about and no one reacts to it. It can make me feel like a loser.”

“Most disappointing might have to [be that] sometimes we get a lot of spam and junk posts,” says Will Phan of LAX Lounge in Albany. “But it hasn’t stopped us from using it.”

Renson, at Ambition, adds this: “Most disappointing is reading other people’s sad stories or angry comments, and although Ambition does have bad days, I don’t make my negativity front and center for all to read my sorrows.”

When it comes to surprises from social media, the stories are all over the place.

Buenau: “That people like to see our special needs kids happy with new eyewear that they can see with.”

Fenno: “We have already presold a number of items for Fall 2014.”

Phan: “Posting a catering picture and randomly [having] someone inquire about a fundraiser off that picture. And the fundraiser we had turned out to be one of the biggest we’ve done.”

Gillis and Karis-Nix: “One snowstorm we thought of an impromptu design and invited folks to come print a “Snowpocalypse” design for a suggested donation at the shop, just for fun. A lot of folks showed up within just a couple hours!”

Renson: “Reading first-time visitors who post about having a great experience, and then longtime followers welcome them to the Ambition family. That’s so sincere that customers feel that close to Ambition they welcome other people in our circle. That’s what small business is all about, being part of the community.”

Finally, on what they have learned:

Fenno: “That there still is a place for brick-and-mortar stores, but social media needs to be a key component of the business.

Baumgartner: “I’ve learned that it is imperative to work with people who have excellent social media skills.”

Hebert: “Stay professional even when being slandered, and support and followers will increase instead of decrease. Loyalty and friendships are formed.”