Companies fired up about social media

Experts say a successful social media plan has specific goals, and time needs to be divided between listening, creating and engaging
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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

YARMOUTH, Maine—In the one year that Stampsco has been active on social media, staff at this small but busy fire company has had to carve out time to figure out how to best use sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

“Typically,” said Rodney Stamps, president of Oklahoma City-based Stampsco, “we have normal business activities during the day, and in the evenings come in and discuss what we’re going to do on social media.”

But Stamps said he’s committed to making social media work for his 20-employee company because he believes it’s the wave of the future. “It’s a work in progress for us, but we are using it and we’re excited about what we think is coming with social media,” Stamps told Security Systems News.

The increasingly important role of social media for fire businesses and fire organizations was the topic of a seminar at the National Fire Protection Association Conference & Expo in Las Vegas in June. The session also explored how to get the most value out of the social media platforms you use, through developing clear goals and dividing your time between listening, creating and engaging.

“Social media is huge and powerful and is going to stick around for a long time, so it’s a really important tool,” said Lauren Backstrom, NFPA social media manager, who presented the session along with Mike Hazell, Web division manager for the NFPA, and moderator Lorraine Carli, NFPA VP of communications.

Backstrom and Hazell started out the seminar, titled “Taking your Social Media Presence to the Next Level,” by exploding the myth that social media is only for the younger generation.

It’s true that 89 percent of Gen Y (those born in the 1980s and 1990s) use social media networking sites, and 79 percent of Gen X (born in the mid-1960s and 1970s) does too, according to statistics that Backstrom presented. However, she said, 72 percent of baby boomers (those born from 1946 to 1964) also use social media sites, and their ranks are growing faster than any other group’s.

“More and more people all across the age spectrum use social media now, and actually the baby boom generation … are growing adopters right now,” Backstrom said. “A lot of times I hear that ‘Our demographic is not on social media, so that’s why we don’t do it,’ but these stats show that’s not the case. So you might want to consider getting into it, if you haven’t already.”

But it can be daunting for companies to figure out how to use social media to benefit their business, said Hazell, who noted that the NFPA experimented with all sorts of approaches when it began using social media four years ago.

“We all know about the social aspect of social media. We all have Facebook accounts and go to YouTube to watch videos,” Hazell said. What’s not completely understood is how to use “social media to enhance their business, to talk to their customers. I think the key point of trying to figure out how to do that is to set specific goals.”

For example, he said, “Are you trying to influence people to do things, have a call to action, are you trying to extend your customer service efforts, are you trying to build advocates?”

Also, Hazell said, “Really think about your audience too. … Are you trying to reach a group of people you already know or are you trying to reach a brand new group of people? That’s going to help you decide which platforms you’re going to use for social media.”

Stamps said that he and his 21-year-old daughter, Jessika—who has added managing Stampsco’s social media efforts to her marketing and data entry job at the company—are fine-tuning the company’s social media goals.

“That is one of the toughest things: What do you use it for?” Rodney Stamps said. “Do you use it draw in new customers, do you use it to engage with existing customers? … Pretty much our platform at this point has just been engaging [existing] customers and looking to recruit employees—we use it a lot for that.”

One way that Stampsco—a Honeywell Gamewell-FCI Engineered Systems distributor that works with commercial, military, governmental, educational and health care clients—engages with customers is finding news about them and posting it, he said. “When you start utilizing their news, man, they really start engaging you. And that sets you up to play off their platform [and connections] with other clients and customers,” Stamps said.

That approach is in line with other advice offered by Backstrom and Hazell, who also talked to SSN in a separate interview. They said businesses should remember that social media is just that—social. As in any social interaction, it’s a turn off if it’s always about you.

“Social media in general sort of hates the direct sell, so you have to balance it out so you’re not doing that all the time with your social media channels,” Hazell told SSN.

One way businesses can promote themselves in an indirect way is providing information useful to others, he and Backstrom said.

“One of NFPA’s goals [with social media] … is we want to establish ourselves as the go-to resource for fire and life safety information,” Hazell said. A similar goal could also work for a fire alarm company, he said. “I would think that company would want to be known as the ultimate expert.”

The San Antonio office of Western States Fire Protection Co. is using social media to establish itself as a source of such expert information, according to Tim Martinez, San Antonio area manager. Western States is a subsidiary of API Group Inc. and has offices throughout the West and Midwest.

Martinez—who said he and other staff members include Facebook and Twitter signatures in their emails—told SSN that if there’s an alert, such as a recall on a sprinkler system or a component, the company posts that on its Facebook page.

Also, he said, “if we get cold weather coming that is going to require maintenance on some of their sprinkler systems in town, we would post that on Twitter and Facebook, informing building engineers and any followers that you want to drain your low-point drains and get the condensation out of there, so you don’t have any freezing pipes.”

In addition, Martinez said, “we are trying to promote YouTube training videos. We’ve got fire pumps that we test and valves and specific stuff that we like to share with our customers. … We have not uploaded any at this time but that is right around the corner.”

Over time, the NFPA has become increasingly adept at social media. Backstrom and Hazell said its efforts include numerous blogs; a successful multi-social-media-channel contest last year to find a fire service official to become the voice of NFPA’s iconic mascot, Sparky the Fire Dog; and Sparky’s Wish List, a sort of a “bridal registry” that provides members of the public with a list of safety equipment they can buy for local fire departments.

The NFPA also hired a social media manager—Backstrom—a year and a half ago.

Stamps said it can be very time-consuming to find relevant content that Stampsco can promote on social media. “I can see where people would need full-time social media experts on staff just to do it … but as a small business we can’t afford that,” he said.

He’s thankful that Jessika Stamps, who said she relies on social media to communicate in her personal life, is able to provide the company with her knowledge and expertise.

Jessika said social media is useful to expand the reach of even traditional methods of communication, like a monthly newsletter. “If you post it on Facebook, it gets out to more people,” she said.

Backstrom advised that regardless of whether companies have five minutes or five days per week to spend on social media, they should break up what time they have in the following way: 25 percent listening, 25 percent creating and 50 percent engaging. The suggested breakdown comes from Chris Brogan, a social media author and expert.

Listening, Backstrom said, means “monitoring social media sites about what people are saying about you, or about your industry, or what your competitors are talking about. It will keep you better informed.”

She said sometimes companies don’t want to be on social media because they fear their businesses will be talked about or their competitors will find out what they’re doing. However, Backstrom said, “I think people would be surprised to know that you’re most likely being talked about in social media already, so it’s just a question of whether you’re going to participate or not. Monitoring and listening to what’s going on out there is definitely the first step.”

Also, she said, seeing what other companies are doing is useful for gleaning ideas about how to use social media.

Creating content, such as posting on your blog or Facebook, should take up another quarter of your time, Backstrom said.

But half your social media time should be devoted to engaging others, she said. That includes interacting with people who ask questions, joining a discussion on a topic your business can relate to, replying to Tweets, and writing on the Facebook wall of another organization to share a concept or an observation, Backstrom said.

“Social media is supposed to be social, but I think a lot of people forget that,” she said.

Finally, Backstrom and Hazell said, companies also need to utilize tools to measure their social media success. They said some tools are free, like HootSuite Analytics, which measures social platforms and site performance.

Measurement, said Hazell, “will help you determine whether what you’re doing is having an impact. That’s really important to know.”