Steve Linsky is as far from the stereotype of social media rock star as you can get. At 68 and semi-retired, he's from an era in which the hot new technology was color television. But as StevePROForce on Twitter, Linsky has nearly 600 followers who know that the social media director at National Lumber in Mansfield, Mass., is a ready source of information about whatever is happening in the building materials industry. When news breaks in the business, he's often one of the first people nationally to post about it.
"I can't go to a trade meeting anywhere where someone doesn't come over and say, 'Oh, you're StevePROForce!'' Linsky says. "I've met people all over the country. They know who I am; they know who National Lumber is."
That's nice for Linsky, but does it make sense for the company to pay for it? Linsky says his boss has asked him, "Why are we doing this? I pay you a lot of money. You're playing all day on Facebook."
It's a question any dealer is likely to spend time pondering. What exactly is the return on investment for "playing all day on Facebook"?
"That's not the best question to be asking," says Helene Gold, director of education for the Northeastern Retail Lumber Association. "I talk about ambient awareness. I encourage our dealers to think of it like this: On Saturdays, you have balloons and hot dogs in your parking lot. A contractor is driving by and stops for a hot dog. A year later, he thinks about the guy who gives him free hot dogs. He has had positive experiences with your company that don't necessarily have to do with buying and selling. It's not measurable, but it is valuable.
"Social media is the same way," Gold argues. "You're creating ambient awareness. It's probably not quantifiably measurable, but it's foolish not to be there."
It's a good idea to be anywhere that puts a dealer in front of his customers—and increasingly, building professionals are hanging out online. In a 2011 survey by Hanley Wood, ProSales' corporate parent, about 50% of builders, remodelers, and architects reported they use social media. The top three uses cited were to communicate with peers, research products, and research vendors.
Want to reach those customers with social media? Here are some tips.
Make It Personal The first step, Gold says, is to identify who in the company will be responsible for posting messages, responding to queries, and generally managing its Facebook page. Gold strongly suggests it be a person who is already engaged in social media, working under the supervision of someone responsible for marketing.
Linsky says the ideal person is the president, operations manager, or sales manager—as long as that person loves the business and can write with enthusiasm. Bruce Abel, president and CEO of Don Abel Building Supply in Juneau, Alaska, has taken that approach.
"Perhaps I am a little paranoid about what gets posted, but until I am comfortable and in the habit of looking at the page every day, I don't want to pass responsibility for the Don Abel page to someone else," Abel says. "I also don't know that another member of my staff would place the same importance on maintaining it that I do."
Abel says his goal for the Facebook page is to create and cultivate relationships, not to sell products.
"We are simply trying to get people interested in us as a company and understanding how we make our community a better place as a business and neighbors," he says. "Honestly, I think our Facebook page will fall flat and fail if we attempted to use it as a sales tool because I don't think that is what Facebook users want in that arena."
That's a smart strategy, says Andrew Davis, chief strategy officer for Boston-based digital marketing agency Tippingpoint Labs. He tells business owners to imagine what would happen if you went to a networking event and all you did was tell people, "We have 50% off today. Bring four friends and you'll get a free piece of lumber!"
"You would be sitting at a table by yourself," Davis says. "If you said, 'I found a great article,' or 'I have a friend who can help you with that project,' you'll draw people. Having a retail operation allows you to educate people. If you tweeted a contractor tip of the day, contractors would start following you."
He tells his customers to follow a 4-1-1 rule: Push out four pieces of relevant content every week, or even every day. One of those should be original and one can be promotional. The other two could be passing along an interesting article or information on a new product or regulation.