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How To Make Money Off Social Media

Author: Kevin Allen Date: March 17, 2014

Small business owners are using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social channels to increase their sales.

  • Stay true to yourself and your company on your social media channels
  • Focus on the quality, not quantity, of your social content
  • Use social media to develop relationships with your customers

There’s a social media powerhouse on North Lincoln Avenue in Chicago.

On the outside, Chicago Music Exchange—a retailer of new, used and vintage music equipment—appears to be a relatively unassuming store on a well-trafficked street with some pretty cool guitars in its window. Nothing about its facade would suggest that it’s the gold standard of social media marketing for independent businesses.

But then there’s this: At press time, CME boasted 12.3 million views on more than 350 YouTube videos, more than 70,000 Facebook likes and more than 6,800 Twitter followers. And all that social media engagement is translating into eye-popping sales increases.

Use Social Media to Get Results

The store’s owner, David Kalt, says the business has boosted its revenue from $3.5 million in 2010—when it adopted a formalized social media approach—to a projected $12 million by the end of 2013. Kalt and his marketing director, Chrissy Hansen, estimate that for every $100,000 the company spends on producing YouTube videos, it sees between $700,000 and $800,000 in revenue.

Not bad for a company with 30 employees that has to compete with nearby discount-touting chain music stores like Guitar Center. Most of the YouTube views—around 7 million—come from a viral video titled “100 Riffs (A Brief History of Rock N’ Roll).” It features employee Alex Chadwick playing the opening of 100 famous rock songs in chronological order. He’s in the store, wearing CME gear, and not trying to actively sell a darn thing.

“That’s universally entertaining to people,” says Hansen, who manages CME’s social media channels. “You don’t have to be somebody who plays guitar or knows anything about gear to watch that and think it’s pretty cool.” The video caused Web traffic to skyrocket, Hansen says.

So, what’s CME’s secret to success? For one, the company has taken an all-hands-on-deck approach to creating social media content. Chadwick and his fellow sales reps, technicians and customer service reps are all musicians—and all lend their talent and expertise to the cause.

“One of our biggest assets here is that everyone is a musician, and everyone has a lot of talent for the most part. We can use that to create that entertaining environment online,” Hansen says. “People call and ask for the people they see in the videos, or they come into the store and want to talk to them.”

David Kalt, owner of Chicago Music Exchange, says his company’s social media engagement efforts have translated into big sales increases over the past three years.

Kalt incentivizes his employees to participate in social media. If employees demo a particular guitar, amp or guitar effect pedal on YouTube, they’ll be rewarded financially if there’s an uptick in sales of those products, though Kalt declined to elaborate on the specifics of the rewards. “There are times when we do a demo that has a $2,000 amp and a $5,000 guitar, and that whole rig will sell,” Hansen says. “People will call specifically to buy it.”

For every social media success story like CME’s, there’s a small business that’s just getting started. Here’s how to drive sales through social.

Be Authentic on Social Media

Sure, you might be thinking, rock ‘n’ roll is an easy sell in social media. But how can you promote your business when your subject matter is less exciting—like insurance?

Linda Rey of the NFIB-member Rey Insurance Agency in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., has found the key to turning social into sales: injecting humor and honesty into social posts. “There hasn’t been a real strategy other than consistency and making it fun,” says Rey, who’s active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest and YouTube. “Really, it’s like therapy for me.”

With more than 10,000 Twitter followers, @ReyInsurance tweets updates about the insurance industry, interactions with other insurance agents and advice for women in business. She also maintains a mix of professional and personal posts on her Facebook page, which has 1,000 followers. 

Quite simply, she tells it like it is. Take this recent Facebook status update: “We are proud to announce that we [are] NO LONGER an EXPERT in the HEALTH Insurance arena. We are confident that if the government DOESN’T know what they are doing, certainly, we cannot provide the standard of service with which we were once comfortable. YOU’RE WELCOME! (We are still in the business of auto, home, business, life!)”

“You can’t go wrong with being authentic,” the self-described extreme extrovert says. “I’m a little goofy sometimes, and I’ve really gotten comfortable with that.”

Rey admits that her style isn’t ideal for everyone. 

“If my personality doesn’t resonate online with someone, they just unfollow me, defriend me—whatever,” she says. “That’s the beauty. You don’t have to listen to me if you don’t want to.”

Her straightforward approach has worked—especially on Twitter, which Rey says has allowed her to acquire 16 new clients.

Focus on Quality, Not Quantity, of Social Posts

Hampton Coffee Company, with three brick-and-mortar espresso bars and cafés, a catering business and a mobile espresso van on Long Island, N.Y., has built a steady following by creating content its followers want to see—and not inundating them.

“No one wants to hear about this special and that special every hour,” co-owner Jason Belkin says. “We try to send out no more than one or two messages total a day, but usually it’s only about half a dozen or so in any given week.”

Belkin says it’s difficult to know how many people are coming into his stores because of updates they saw in social media. At least three to four times per week, customers will come in and say they want to try a drink or food item that they saw online. Mostly, however, engaging with customers in social venues is a way to have an ongoing conversation with customers and keep them updated on what’s happening at the various locations. Still, Belkin says that social has helped the company grow and expand in the past four years.

“We have many followers on Facebook and Twitter from outside the state and the country, so that means that our brand recognition has really grown, which is good for our company overall,” Belkin says.

Belkin says social is just one part of Hampton Coffee’s overall marketing strategy in conjunction with traditional media. “But if our fans and followers are increasing and they are communicating with us very positively, we feel it is successful,” he says.

Tell Your Story on Social

Across the country in San Diego, Joe Freitag, founder of leather goods provider Friday & River, sees the brand loyalty social media can foster as his main ROI. 

His company connects with potential customers through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest.

“Ultimately, you want to grow your business,” Freitag says. “But if you want to build loyalty to your brand, then you have to open up communication, and if you do not go to where people are communicating, then you are missing an essential point of growing your business.”

Freitag has accomplished this by keeping to a simple formula: “We tell the story of the brand,” he says. “We stay true to that in every way, and content comes naturally.”

A quick glance at Friday & River’s Instagram page reveals its true value. Instagram isn’t user-friendly in terms of linking to product pages. You can include links in your photo description, but they aren’t live (easily clickable). So traffic to websites from Instagram for brands is generally negligible. But by showing beautiful photos of its products and inspiration, Friday & River is creating a lifestyle—something so many big brands strive to do. While the Friday & River Instagram page doesn’t push directly to product pages, the awareness it creates is priceless.

The company launched into social with the goal of connecting with fans by giving them a direct line to the founders and product makers. It accomplished this by offering fans an inside look into the business. “We’ve learned that people want to see our process, the tools we use, leather before it’s cut, how pieces wear and what inspires us,” Freitag says.

Giving customers confidence to make a purchase is often overlooked as an important byproduct of social media, which isn’t lost on Freitag.

“Things like word-of-mouth, establishing an emotional connection, building loyalty—these things are not always tangible, but they’re critical to growth,” Freitag says. “Social media is one of the primary places where this takes place, at least in our line of work.”

Start Conversations on Social

Rock/Creek Outfitters has been supplying Chattanooga, Tenn., hikers, campers, climbers and outdoor enthusiasts with gear for more than 26 years. The company uses social media to maintain and foster the hometown feel of its brick-and-mortar stores and also build a national online presence.

Mark McKnight, Rock/Creek’s e-commerce and marketing director, runs the company’s Facebook and Twitter pages, which boast more than 29,000 and 8,500 followers, respectively. The company also has a successful Pinterest presence, where it has more than 1 million followers.

The content across channels is a mix of outdoor lifestyle articles, pushes to the company blog and promotional product or sale-related posts. Still, McKnight says, “I don’t have a lot of expectations for direct sales out of social media. I never really have. What I want to see is positive sentiment.”

Rock/Creek built its reputation on sponsoring community events like trail runs and ultramarathons. These events have garnered a national following and bring people from all over the United States to Rock/Creek’s five brick-and-mortar locations.

While they’re in the store, people are checking in on Foursquare, posting to the Rock/Creek Facebook page and tweeting about it. McKnight monitors sentiment and uses the social channels as a resource to connect with out-of-towners and locals.

“For us, social media is as much about developing a relationship as it is about sales,” McKnight says. “We know that the relationship building side of things does impact sales.”

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How to Choose the Right Social Channel for Your Business

Go where your customers are: Cross-reference the demographic of your business with that of the social platform. Most make their demographic information public.

Listen: Are your customers already using a social venue to talk about your business? That’s the biggest indicator that you should be there to facilitate the conversation.

Gauge your bandwidth: Decide whether you have enough time to commit to creating a robust, professional-looking presence on a particular social channel. 

“We are a small company, so we need to focus our efforts,” says Joe Freitag, founder of leather goods company Friday & River. “That means we choose to stick to the social media platforms that are most used by the people who like to connect with our brand.”

Match the channel to your content: Do you have great imagery? Use Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Do you have the ability to create compelling video? Use YouTube. Do you want to be seen as a thought leader in your industry and converse with others? Use Twitter.

Don’t be distracted by the shiny and new: Before launching into a new social media channel, make sure it has staying power. Are bigger brands using it? What’s the mainstream media saying about it? Who’s financially backing it?

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