For the little guy, social media can be an equalizer

When Tony Hull wants to plan a hyper-local marketing campaign, he opens the Facebook page of his family-owned firm, Friends and Family Auto Service. He creates a message, checks off the age groups he’s after, looks at a map and starts plugging in zip codes. “This time, I decided to get something going in Chester,” says Hull, whose auto shop is near Chippenham Parkway and Hull Street Road.

Hull is one of many small business people in Chesterfield who have discovered the game-changing advantages of being tech-savvy in a social-media saturated world. Facebook, Instagram, Yelp, AroundMe, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn and other online platforms are cost-effective tools that work at the local level, giving businesses a quick, efficient and powerful way to communicate with customers and recruit new ones.

The internet has been called “the great equalizer” for putting information, access and an audience at the fingertips of anyone who shows up, and this title is especially relevant in the small business world. Social media gives mom-and-pops a way to compete against large chains and service outlets with bigger marketing budgets. At Shear Image Salon and Boutique at Hancock Village near Woodlake, owner Tammy Cooper uses Facebook and Instagram to send news of specials and images of new hairstyles to customers. “All of these photos are a good thing to have,” she says. Her store gets an extra online boost when a bride and her bridesmaids get their hair done at the salon, beaming their pictures out on Instagram. Social media is a powerful tool in the real estate business, giving buyers instant access to gobs of information, including property photographs, floor plans, pricing, school districts and local tax rates. “Email is a thing of the past,” says Phillip Hughes, who has been selling homes for two years at Valentine Properties. He uses and Facebook.

While many social media outlets allow users to target their markets precisely, there are other ways to manage it. For instance, LinkedIn, a networking platform for professionals, can be useful for marketing and branding businesses.

If a user ties his or her LinkedIn company page to a specific neighborhood, such as listing a business as “Brandermill’s leading shop,” the location will pop up quickly on search engines like Google and Bing, says Peter Larsen, senior business improvement specialist at Cobb Technologies. “The phrase helps develop the market,” he says.

This practice is called “key word marketing,” says Kristen Henshaw, a web developer at UpTech, a technology services company. She says that while social media offerings provide many opportunities, it has its shortcomings. Some platforms, like Twitter, for instance, are limited in the amount of information they can handle. Cyber security can also be a problem. Also, for social media to be a successful marketing tool, businesses have to maintain a steady online presence, posting and updating frequently, and that takes time. Among the biggest sins is to create a Facebook page and “not update it,” Henshaw says.

Riding the technology wave can be exciting – but it doesn’t always work out. That’s what happened three years ago when Marshall Whaling, chief executive at Uptech, helped the Chesterfield County Chamber of Commerce launch “Chesterfield on the Go,” a mobile marketplace app for small businesses. Local businesses got the app – which allowed them to sell goods and services via smartphone – at a discount if they were members of the chamber. “But the application didn’t develop, and it was dropped,” Whaling says.

One reason may have been prices. Without the discount, start-up fees ranged from $229 to $449, monthly fees from $99 to $189. High fees discouraged Hull at his auto repair shop. He said he once paid $2,300 for a co-marketing service with a major grocery chain and got only three responses. With Facebook, he can run a campaign for $50, he says.

Indeed, social media can involve a learning curve. The young have the advantage, says Hughes, “because anyone under the age of 45” is typically well-versed in the field.

The existence of high-tech marketing tools doesn’t mean old-fashioned service should be discarded. Hughes says he always follows up any social media contact with a personal note. “The key is being able to combine social media with the personal touch,” he says.


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