Social Networking Gains Momentum

If you search Linked In, a social networking Website designed to bring together business professionals, you’ll run across a number of vending operators, including Tim Russell, vice president of sales, Canteen Service of Steel Valley in Youngstown, Ohio.

Linked In allows people to create a profile and invite other professionals to be “linked” to them, leveraging who you know and who they know to find business, close deals, hire employees, etc. Tim Russell’s page indicates he’s seeking potential business.

“l am looking for contacts in local businesses who need vending and office refreshment services,” it says. His past employment, education and link to the company’s Website also appear, making it easy for anyone searching for him to find out about him. With a well formed profile and many professional connections, Linked In can be a powerful business tool, because it’s heavily used, just like many social networking Websites.

COMPANIES NOTE SOCIAL NETWORKING BENEFITS

The popularity of social networking is growing at such a high rate that more and more companies are starting to take notice. Inc. magazine reported a recent study from the Center for
Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth concerning social media usage among Inc. 500 companies. Private companies are the heaviest users of social media and its adoption has grown since the original study in 2007.

A reported 91 percent of companies surveyed in 2009 were using at least one social media tool. And of the companies without any social networking, many plan to add them in the future. The study indicates 44 percent of companies are planning a blog and 36 percent will use online video.

The study also revealed many companies using social networking to reach suppliers, not just consumers. Twitter, another social networking site, was cited as most important for communication by 26 percent of those surveyed.

AN OPERATOR TESTS SOCIAL NETWORKING

Paresh Patel, founder and president of Courtesy Vending in Portland, Ore. maintains a blog, a series of short journal-like entries, dedicated to healthy vending. But he knows he needs a couple of postings a week to really be successful. “In theory, my blog is a great idea, but in practice, I haven’t been able to keep up with it,” said Patel.

Patel started the blog after getting inquiries via his Website and phone about healthy vending. “Somewhere along the line, we became a recognized source for information on healthy vending,” said Patel.

It’s no accident, since Patel publicly supported healthy vending programs in schools. The blog was a place he could share the information he had about the subject, maintain his company’s health conscious image, and draw traffic to his Website.

While the need for information about healthy vending makes Patel feel the blog is worthwhile, he’s not sure social media has a great deal of business value. “We live in a society with information overload…simply having more is not necessarily better,” said Patel. He feels there is too much information for people to sift through on social networking sites, making the return on investment of time and money limited, at least to the vending and OCS operator.

“Success in the social media arena is built around personal connection with customers,” said Susie Weintraub, vice president, strategic marketing and communications, Compass Group North America. Because of this, Compass Group decided to lead its social media initiative with a campaign that would resonate with customers.

In December of 2009, Weintraub’s team developed a Facebook page focusing on its new “Flexitarian” campaign. The campaign calls on people to eat one less meal of meat a week. “It’s not a hard-line stance,” said Weintraub, “…but a choice for those looking for healthier or vegetarian meal options.” Compass Group is partnering with manufacturers to support meatless meals in foodservice accounts.

Compass Group has discovered a powerful ally in social media. When the Facebook page was established in October, it quickly gained 600 fans, people who commented on the page and wanted to be connected to it.

COMPASS GROUP WINS SUPPORT USING SOCIAL MEDIA

In January 2010, the Humane Society of the United States sent out a press release applauding Compass Group’s “Be a Flexitarian” initiative. In the week that followed, the number of fans increased to over 2,000.

“(The response) is what we’d hoped for and more,” said Weintraub. While the fans represent end-users of Compass Group’s services, Weintraub expects it will bring new business as well. “We hope potential clients will see what we’re doing,” she said. Weintraub’s team currently monitors and manages the Facebook site daily, commenting back when appropriate.

Compass Group also maintains a blog called Compass 360 which offers information about diet, food, and personal perspectives from corporate nutritionists. There’s also a Compass Twitter page, a site that lets users post a sentence or two called “tweets” from a computer or mobile phone to a personal Twitter site. Compass’ Twitter page announces company events and news.

B2B USING SOCIAL NETWORKING

One product distributor from Portland, Ore. loves being able to communicate with his vending customers via social media. Curtis Wokal, vice president of operations at Vend Northwest Distributing, signed up for a free blog at blogspot.com and writes almost daily about vending and personal topics. The blog helps him stay in front of his customers.

“It’s working really great,” said Wokal. He feels operators appreciate being able to know more about the person who supplies them products.

Wokal also uses Twitter. When he’s on the road and something crosses his mind, he tweets back to his Twitter page. The tweets also show up on his blog.

Wokal plans to continue blogging and tweeting because of the connection he feels it makes with customers. “It’s important to us to be close to our customers,” said Wokal, “I want everyone to feel we’re a family.”

SOCIAL MEDIA INCREASES SEARCH RESULT RANKING

Facebook, Twitter and blogging also have another advantage: increasing a company’s search engine optimization (SEO). Richard Smith, president of OCS Access, which specializes in providing ecommerce software to the OCS and ancillary market, often gets calls about improving SEO. “It’s a common misconception that you can throw a couple thousand dollars to Google ad words to get successful SEO,” said Smith. While he admits that’s often a piece of it, most users know what a Google ad or sponsored link is and won’t click on it. Instead, users focus on the Websites that come up in the first page of their results. Being on Facebook and Twitter can be a critical part of getting on the search page.

Smith uses the example of Keurig’s K-cups. Keurig owns the right to the term K-cup, so no operator can bid on it as a key word due to compliance rules. “But you can use ‘K-cup’ in a blog post or tweet,” said Smith. In simple terms, SEO ranking is based on how often a term someone is searching for is repeated on a Web page in meaningful context. That’s why blogging about something, writing about it on Facebook or tweeting about it can lead to higher SEO.

According to Smith, the real power of social networking sites comes from active posters. The more posts a site has, the more phrases there are for search engines to pick up, raising the SEO. A site higher in the search result ranks means more people see the site, and hopefully respond, or even better, repost about the service or product. If a fan republishes a post or blogs about it, anyone reading their site will see it. This marketing snowball is called “viral marketing” and has strong marketing potential, especially because it is free.

“Social networking and blogging and customer reviews are more important than Google ad words,” said Smith. He recommends paying someone dedicated to social networking instead of paying for key words.

“We’re seeing an increase in people doing it,” said Smith, who knows many companies successfully utilizing social networking sites. While Smith admits most of these are business-to-consumer sites, he argues there is plenty of opportunity for business-to-business as well.

Smith has seen operators increase sales because of social networking. “Tweeting about a seasonal coffee that comes out…can cause a flurry of activity on that product,” he said. The blogs and tweets can create demand even before the product is released, such as when Coffee People offered the Tree Hugger K-cup.

Social networking works best for a business when a personality is associated with it. Just posting something about the company each week won’t fool active users and they won’t come back. Social marketing works because users find it in a casual way and react to it.

Smith recommends some tools to operators who want to use social networking sites without spending hours sitting at the computer. One tool is called Seesmic. It’s a management console, which integrates both Twitter and Facebook in an e-mail-like format. It allows updates to both sites at once.

Another management option Smith mentions is Twuffer, an application for Twitter where prewritten tweets can be entered and scheduled to release at various times in the future. This is a popular option for online contests such as scavenger hunts where users are given a trivia question or clue to solve for a prize.

For more information, visit:

Compass Group Flexitarian Facebook page:www.facebook.com/home.php#/pages/Be-a-Flexitarian/278239070537?ref=nf
Compass Twitter page:www.twitter.comp/compassgroupusa
Compass blog: http://compassgroup.typepad.com/
Courtesy Vending Healthy Vending blog:http://courtesyvending.com/blog/
Vend Northwest Dist. blog:www.vendnorthwest.blogspot.com/

Small businesses can use social media

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported how small businesses can effectively use social networking Websites. Inexpensive, these sites have the potential to produce far reaching viral marketing when there’s a high pass-along rate among users.

Business owners should start by monitoring their company’s name online. See what people are saying about the company and where. Respond back.

If planning to blog, tweet, or join Facebook, owners should be dedicated to posting comments often. The comments should be short, engaging, and important to their customer base. An example might be: how to choose a quality vending company or how vending machines are “going green.” Owners should focus on information they can speak confidently on and have been asked about by customers.

TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT

Most digital cameras have a video option. If the clip is interesting, it can generate a lot of “talk” online.

Remember, occasional forays into social media don’t work. Without a plan, and dedication to execute, marketing via social networking won’t give owners a noteworthy return on their time.

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