NEW YORK — Every drycleaner is looking for new ways to increase sales. A sluggish economy makes it particularly important to use marketing tools that can help tap new prospects at minimal cost.
That’s exactly what social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace do. Those services have gotten their fair share of attention in recent years, but the newest medium of all — Twitter — has perhaps the greatest potential for fattening your bottom line.
Why? Because Twitter combines the immediacy of a phone call with the informational content of a letter or e-mail. The result is a high-impact message that grabs customers and identifies your operation as the place to go.
Your personalized messages — or “tweets” — show up immediately on customers’ cell phones and in their e-mail inboxes. These real-time messages can announce sales or in-store events. They can offer links to helpful articles. And more important, they can respond to comments and questions with an immediacy that communicates your concern for customers and strengthens their loyalty to your business.
Twitter’s proactive nature is especially valuable for small operators. “Twitter is a great way for small businesses to compete against the giant chains,” says Frank F. Chiera, executive vice president for social-media integration at Kel & Partners, a Boston-based public relations agency. “The big companies have the money to overpower the market with advertising,” he says. “Your situation is different: You have to be more creative in finding communications vehicles that target your best customers and most likely prospects.”
The good news is that Twitter doesn’t demand much — it’s easy to get started, it’s free, and the people who use it regularly are enthusiastic. About 75 million people now “tweet” their time away on every topic imaginable, from personal dining decisions to critical business moves.
The secret to success is to find those participants who represent prospects for your business and then build your own list of “followers” who want to receive your tweets. Begin by going to www.twitter.com and signing up for a free account. Provide your e-mail address, type your business name in the “real name” field, and create a user name and a password.
Next, find out if current customers are already on Twitter. “Twitter is not for everybody,” says Steve Dodd, a technology consultant in Toronto. “If you have customers ‘living’ there, then you should be there. If you don’t, there is no point.”
Use Twitter’s search box to find some of your current customers. What topics are they tweeting about? What are they following? How often do they post messages? Also engage customers at your store. Ask, “Are you using Twitter?” and find out what they like about the service.
Many people don’t use their real names on Twitter, so cast a wide net by searching for tweets on subject areas of interest to you and your customers alike. Do this by searching for topics with what Twitter calls “hash tags” — keywords with a hashmark in front.
For example, search for “#weddinggowns” or “#fashion” if you are interested in finding posts about those topics; searches like this will uncover posts from individuals you can “follow.” In exchange, these people may start to follow you.
Don’t limit your research to current customers. Try searching for other drycleaners and suppliers. Start “following” them and watch what they do. What kind of tweets are they posting? How often? Are they taking pains to engage their customers in personalized ways, rather than just posting advertising? Are their customers responding?
If you make it this far with Twitter, you’ll recognize its potential and can start tweeting on your own. The following are tips for successful tweeting.
Emphasize relationship-building to create a solid foundation for sales. Avoid posting a series of ads, though — that irritates people and makes them stop following. Instead, emphasize how you want to help your followers. “Get involved with other people who tweet on your topic and ask if you can assist,” Dodd says.
Twitter is a conversation, so encourage back-and-forth engagement. “Businesses that use Twitter best don’t just broadcast,” says Dana Lookadoo, a Sacramento-based consultant. “Avoid broadcasting ‘me-me-me’ messages. If you’re just talking about yourself, you’re just posting a stream of information. Look at what people are saying and interact with them.”
Word your tweets in ways that invite feedback. For example: “What’s the one thing we can do to make our store better?” Thank everyone who responds and ask them to comment on everyone else’s responses.
Promote prudently. There’s nothing wrong with posting an occasional advertisement, but do it in a way that rewards Twitter users. For example, occasionally post a link to a coupon that’s good for a discount for every Twitter user who visits. “Tell followers that if they mention they follow you on Twitter when they visit, they will receive a gift,” Lookadoo suggests.
Keep things interesting by varying the content of your tweets. Offer industry insights or stain-removal tips. Link to articles published by AmericanDrycleaner.com and other media outlets. Announce special events and issue promotional coupons. Ask about how customers feel about your stores. Send anything, in short, that helps recipients connect more closely with your business.
Season your diet of business-related tweets with occasional surprises. “Post things that get people engaged and thinking,” Dodd says. “Throw a comment out there once in a while.” Send out news about local events, sports and music.
Stay focused — variety is great; irrelevancy is not. Most of your tweets should be about topics that help bind followers to your business. “Don’t start tweeting about politics, about a new car you like, and on topics that are all over the place,” Chiera says.
Beyond the occasional maverick post, concentrate on your business and what you can offer customers. Make each post valuable. Every post should provide something of value to recipients — even if it’s just a chuckle that brightens their day.
Get third-party endorsements. Don’t fall into the trap of posting things like “We’re the best in town” — customers can see right through that. Instead, encourage your followers to post about the great experiences they had at your plant. Thank the ones who do so, and send them special offers.
Capitalize on other Internet tools. “You can include links in your tweets that take readers directly to your blog post or website,” Lookadoo says. Remember that successful social networking, like Internet marketing in general, consists of a productive mix of approaches and technologies.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION
Think of Twitter as a conversation about your business and how it can help customers. But instead of happening at a specific time, the conversation takes place everywhere, 24 hours a day.
Twitter lets you communicate with the public in a personalized way: You can start a discussion that positions your services as valuable elements in the lives of customers and prospects. This immediacy is in sharp contrast with more passive networks such as Facebook, where customers must choose to visit your page to see what’s new.
Look for Twitter and other social-media outlets to become even more important in the years ahead as a new generation of customers grows up. Today’s kids and young adults are more likely to text than talk or go to a website. Twitter will become an integral part of their lives — and your sales efforts.
Still confused about Twitter’s place in your marketing scheme? Put a toe in the water and start small. “Social media can be a scary place for small-business owners,” Chiera says. “They typically don’t know where to start. Don’t feel you’ll end up having to make drastic changes in what you do. You’re not going to do it the wrong way.”