It all fits under the name Web 2.0. It covers Web sites, of course, but it’s also forums, photo sharing, videos, blogs, reviews, grassroots marketing, e-mail newsletters, and threaded conversations. It connects companies with customers and customers with customers through the speed and links of the Internet.
Today, especially, businesses need all the help they can get, and if they can work smarter for less that’s even better. New Internet tools make the process of meeting and learning from others easier and sharing ideas faster, while many others still find there are few substitutes for good, old-fashioned in-person meetings. However it’s done, there’s a surge of interest in creating support groups. This article reviews online networking, business groups and how one retailer is using Web 2.0 techniques to communicate with customers.
Online social network sites (SNS) are growing more popular daily. Many of their names are familiar: Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, for example. Chances are you learned of them some time ago from someone younger than yourself. Today, however, sites such as LinkedIn and others are proving their worth by connecting grownup business people. They are the modern equivalent of schmoozing heightened to the power of the Internet.
SNS are all about forming communities, often based on the shared interests of members. And these communities can be huge! Web information companies have put the number of registered users (not necessarily the same as active users) in the mega-millions. MySpace: 250 million-plus registered users; Facebook: 140 million; LinkedIn: 30 million; and Twitter, a relatively new social network: 2 million.
Using these networks, businesses of all sorts today can stay better connected with customers, colleagues and even competitors. Better still, most of these are free.
The main benefit of using a social network is networking. Meeting someone who can help your business (a new supplier, an installer, a talented decorator) that you didn’t know before, but who happens to know someone you do—a friend of a friend. Online, these connections can happen much faster than in the real world.
There are some drawbacks to be aware of. Social networks are built to be social. They are meant to build networks around personal interests and hobbies. Even the most austere member profile can reveal personal information you might not want a business contact to know.
Generally, business experts see four main ways that online social and business networks can help businesses.
1. Make Unexpected Contacts: Joining a window coverings social network (D&WC Connection, for example) connects you with others with same interests—people you otherwise might never get the chance to know. In the real world connections are made through meetings and introductions. Online, hundreds of people with the same interests can be spread across the country or the world, yet be as close as your computer screen. Someone you know might know someone you should know.
2. Build Business: Finding the right contact at a company can be tricky or difficult. Connecting socially can be easier, and quicker. Companies also can use social networks to get instant feedback on products or ideas for new ones: a way of learning about customer needs by listening to what they are saying to each other.
3. Discover New Talent: Companies don’t have to wait for talented people to come to them. Through social networks, companies can find active, passionate people and contact them.
4. Viral Marketing: Get the work out on a new product or service and let your customers tell others. But don’t post a news release. Share a sneak preview, instead. Consumers are savvy enough to ignore direct marketing messages, but are much more likely to listen to and believe what another consumer says about your company or your products posted on an SNS.
There is caveat. A company that violates the unwritten rules of social networks can be in for a shock. Bad news travels faster than good news, and on the Internet it is amazingly fast. Don’t use an SNS for heavy-handed advertising, take contributors seriously, don’t treat them with disrespect by selectively removing negative posts, don’t spam or use registration information, don’t conceal who your are through an alias.
Networking groups vividly express an important idea: No one ever needs to feel alone. Connecting through the Internet might seem cold and impersonal for some, especially when meeting new contacts, so in-person meetings are preferred. Face-to-face gatherings can be particularly effective.
In December 2008, seven major window coverings retail leaders with collectively more than 60 years experience and more than $40 million in annual sales met in person at a conference in Baltimore, MD. The seven, four of whom have been featured as cover stories in Draperies & Window Coverings, are members of Exciting Windows, a national group of window coverings professionals offering all products and services.
These seven had something else in common. Although each has annual sales ranging from $3 million to $6 million, they were looking to compete more effectively against national chains and franchises. Through its connection with Exciting Windows, this group hopes to accomplish together what none could do on their own.
The seven are: Carl Movrich, Drapery Connection, Downers Grove, IL (D&WC November 2004); Bruce Heyman, Metropolitan Window Fashions, North Plainfield, NJ (D&WC October 2007 Retailer of the Year; December 2001); Steve and Cheri Roellchen, One Stop Decorating, Kansas City, MO; Will Bathke, Aero Drapery & Blind, Minneapolis, MN (D&WC February 2008); Jeff Kaplan, Innu Window, Natick, MA (D&WC March 2002); Ken McWilliams, ABC Blind & Drapery, Austin, TX; and Mike O’Daniel, Arizona Blinds, Peoria, AZ.
Each company is a leading operator in its region and the owners share a common philosophy: to offer full-service, shop-at-home sales of all window products (blinds, draperies, shades and shutters) and exciting ideas to make rooms more beautiful.
The group’s major interests include more appointments for decorators, a market leadership plan for growth, better buying, private branding for fabrics and draperies, information sharing between leaders, advanced technology for marketing and business operations and a recommendation by HGTV celebrity designer Michael Payne, spokesman for the Exciting Windows group.
ABC Blind’s Ken McWilliams says the group’s main goal is to create leads, especially important in today’s market. “We get together and we share information on what works for us, and since we’re not in competitive markets we’re not competitors.” He adds that members of the group will exchange information on suppliers and pass along good experiences they have had.
Jeff Kaplan, Innu Window, says a recent supplier lead he received through the group has put him in the running for a current commercial project. It was a supplier he had not known or worked with before.
“Customers are the most precious things we’ve got, we don’t want one of them to slip through the cracks,” says McWilliams. “One of things we’re doing with the group is integrating some software where we can better serve our clients via e-mail and do some things that we haven’t done before.”
Kaplan acknowledges the value of the advice each group member can offer the others. It’s something he knows from his past experience founding the National Independent Textile Retailers Organization, a home textile trade group. “The best part was that everybody sat down at markets and talked. We all became good friends and we’d call each other for advice.”
CONECTING WITH TODAY’S CUSTOMERS
Established less then three years ago, Shades IN Place, www.shadesinplace.com, Hopkinton, MA, offers shop-at-home window coverings and a host of services: measurement, installation, motorization, window tinting, template making and consultation.
Earlier this year, owner Roger Magalhaes began an e-mail newsletter as a way to connect with customers and build a network that will keep his business top of mind. Draperies & Window Coverings connected with Magalhaes via e-mail to learn about his plans for the e-newsletter.
D&WC: What made you decide to create an e-mail newsletter? Why do you think it will be successful?
Magalhaes: I decided to create eNews IN Place because nowadays Internet is available everywhere: cell phones, coffee shops, laptops plus the fact that Americans, more than ever, experience less and less traditional 9 to 5 jobs. Also, more and more families are earning two incomes. With all of that, people don’t have as much free time as they used to have. They don’t have much time to surf junk mail. An e-newsletter is good for many reasons:
• It is green (no paper waste)
• I can reach husband and wife (with paper mail, if the wife does not like the propaganda, she will trash it and not even tell the husband)
• If someone likes what they see, they can forward it to one or 1,000 people across town or across the globe.
• It is much cheaper than paper mail
• It can be delivered very fast
• It is easy to edit
I think eNews IN Place will be successful for many reasons:
• There is a personal touch in my message—a message from a small, easy-to-reach guy. It is not a template that has been modified to my needs from the big companies.
• It is short (Remember: people don’t have much free time anymore)
• My mailing list knows me (I do not buy any mailing list)
• I feature other professionals (My target could be looking for someone that I just featured)
• I suggest ways to save money (Who doesn’t like to save money?)
• I ask for feedbacks
D&WC: Where/how did you get a mailing list?
Magalhaes: I’ve been collecting e-mails from my customers for over a year. Also I belong to trade organizations such as WCAA, CHF, Window Pro, BNI, IDS, ASID. What I do is to post a thread or spark a conversation and invite people to visit my Web site and sign-up to receive my eNews IN Place.
Also when I see a client for the first time, I explain all services provided by my company and ask them if they would like to receive monthly tips or communication—90 percent of them say yes!
D&WC: What do you expect to get out of your efforts? For example, building relations with current customers? Obtaining news customers?
Magalhaes: I expect to maintain a closer relationship with my current customers (they know I am around). I also expect to teach them that I offer more than just blinds (films, fabrics,cleaning).
I also think that if I “show up” every month in front of them, when their need arrives, they will remember me. They can also tell their friends and family about me and also forward my eNews IN Place to them. Also I try to talk about something related to the month (Valantine’s Day, tax season, Mother’s Day). That could spark a conversation.
D&WC: Have you been able to produce the newsletter by yourself?
Magalhaes: Yes, Shades IN Place offers many products and services such as measurement only, installation only, blinds, shades and shutters, window films, fabrics, draperies, cornices and more. Every month I feature only one product or service. Plus one professional from people that I trust and one or two money-saver tips.
I welcome suggestions and comments from my readers as well. The only thing I rely on someone else for is to review my text for grammar and typos (English is my second language. I am originally from Brazil and I speak Portuguese).
I love to read business related articles and learn from them. I love to attend courses and training as much as possible. And most important: I love what I do! All this together gives me enough material/skills to create my eNews IN Place.
D&WC: What kind of information/content do you provide in the newsletter?
Magalhaes: Three 3 short sections:
• Main section features one product or service offered by Shades IN Place
• Spot Light features one professional that I trust
• Bottom Line features money saving tips.
D&WC: What frequency are you aiming for? Once a month? More often, less often?
Magalhaes: Once a month around the 8th.
D&WC: Are you using the e-mail newsletter to replace a more traditional methods of customer communication in marketing (such as telemarketing, advertising, etc.)?
Magalhaes: Yes and no.
Yes because e-mail newsletter is greener, cheaper, faster and easier to edit.
No because I do call customers and leave brochures at the end of a job. But paper marketing is focused to known customers only. Not for cold calls
D&WC: What advice would you give to other dealers considering the same type of program?
Magalhaes: It is much cheaper than traditional marketing, but it requires lots of time to create and edit a very good newletter.
There are many companies out there offering eMarketing services nowadays. Choose one that fits your needs and your budget.