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Ann Arbor Retail Cannonballs Into the Social Media Pool

For today's small businesses, the question is no longer if they should get involved in social media, but how. With Facebook (500 million+ users), Twitter (200 million+) and foursquare (8.5 million+) growing each day, the scales are tipping - it won't be long before more people are using social networks than aren't.
According to Re:NEW Michigan's latest social media survey, over 30% of respondents said their business spends between one and three hours on social media each week, while a national survey by Citibank reported that 36% of small businesses are experimenting with the tool.

It makes sense - go where the consumers are and connect on platforms they're comfortable with. Social media isn't a fad. Facebook's "Like" button celebrated its first birthday last month. A Mashable poll found that more people learned about the death of Osama Bin Laden through Twitter (30%) than any traditional media outlet (18% on TV). New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg made the Big Apple one of 14 U.S. cities to proclaim April 16 "Foursquare Day" in honor of the leader in location-based social media. 

Until recently, I was the social media director for the University of Michigan athletic media relations office, supervising Facebook and Twitter accounts representing all 27 varsity sports and running the only foursquare account dedicated exclusively to a collegiate athletic department. From 2010 to 2011, we had 278% growth on Facebook and 300% growth on Twitter, while the number of visitors referred to the official website of Michigan athletics (MGoBlue.com) increased 850%. Attendance at fall and winter sporting events also increased an average of 39% for Olympic sports, with substantial increases in paid attendance as well. We were ahead of the curve.

To see how Ann Arbor businesses are using social media and what, if any, tangible benefits they've experienced, we contacted 15 business owners with a significant presence on Facebook, Twitter and/or foursquare and asked them to discuss their experience.
"We've had a great response from Facebook," says Vault of Midnight owner Liz Sullivan. (1,593 Facebook group members, 221 Twitter followers) "We use Facebook and Twitter primarily for event promotion but also for announcements we'd like to get out to a large audience. We won a great award last year and used those two resources to let everyone know."
Nina Juergens, owner of Acme Mercantile (268 on Facebook), has experimented with Facebook for her small downtown shop.
"I try to mix it up on Facebook with photos of new products, in-store celebrity sightings and media attention or awards," says Juergens. "It's hard to measure the actual impact of social media on the business, but I believe targeting the people who "like" the store and staying in the forefront of their minds is important."

Nearly every respondent mentioned that one of the best things about Facebook and Twitter is that they're free.
"It's the best advertising I never paid for," says Matt Bradish, owner of Underground Sounds (1,507 on  Facebook). "I don't like advertising in general. Facebook has been the best way to keep our customers informed without patronizing them. I try to appeal to their intellect and it's rare that I'll try and influence them to buy something unless I really, really like it."
"The number one thing is it doesn't cost a thing," says Kerry Johnson, owner of the Cupcake Station (5,942 on Facebook, 906 on Twitter). "We're going to ride the wave while it lasts. Social media helps us hit our core customers and then build through word of mouth. For food, the number one thing you want to do is get your product out there and we've been interactive with our followers - we're good at that. We hold contests, offer coupons and reach out to our customers."

The Cupcake Station is one of the best examples of social media done right. It has one of the largest social media followings in Ann Arbor businesses and while its Facebook page posts valuable content including pictures, information on specials and information on upcoming events, they also interact with customers in the reviews section. A bad review from a customer on April 22 was met by a public note from the Cupcake Station, who would have the ability to contact that user directly through Facebook. Their Twitter feed is constantly updated as well.
Twitter is the platform that many savvy businesses are using to assist with real-time customer support and listen to what people are saying about their business. Airlines have been one of the first industries to embrace Twitter's power as a customer relations tool, listening to customer complaints or questions and acting. It's as simple as typing a business's name into the Twitter search window and hitting Enter.

Jolly Pumpkin (@jollypumpkina2) has one of the largest Twitter followings (966) among Ann Arbor businesses, using the channel as a news feed but also to inject personality into the brand. A quick search of Twitter reveals a good amount of chatter, from rave reviews of their beer and chips to someone tweeting about asking the bartender to put CNN on TV the night Osama Bin Laden was killed. So far most local businesses have only scratched the surface on Twitter with even the largest channel we found (Arbor Brewing Company with 1,393 followers) using the channel primarily as a news feed.
The future of social media and small business is location-based platforms like foursquare. With one in three U.S. consumers owning a smartphone, foursquare and other location-based social media networks not only serve as word of mouth advertising for businesses but allow business owners to offer incentives. There were 381 million foursquare check-ins in 2010 covering every country in the world, including one check-in from the International Space Station. Despite the rise in popularity of the growing platform, few area businesses have claimed their venues and even fewer offer foursquare specials to entice consumers to check-in to their business. National brands like Radio Shack, Starbucks, McDonald's and The Gap have offered popular national foursquare specials.

Locally, Café Habana (1,960 foursquare check-ins) and the Blue Tractor (1,680 check-ins) offer some of the most enticing foursquare specials. Both establishments offer half off any appetizer or dessert with every 10 check-ins, while Salon Vox currently offers a 20% discount on new hair products when you check-in on foursquare and donate old products to people in need. Two local businesses offer mayor specials, which are some of the most interesting. To be mayor of a venue, you must have the most check-ins over a 60-day period. Underground Printing and Monahan's Seafood Market in Kerrytown offer a free t-shirt and free chowder on Wednesdays and Saturdays, respectively, for their mayors. 
The platform is maximized by businesses that patrons can frequent multiple times each week, though a one-time special to entice someone to try a new product or service has value as well.
Ann Arbor businesses are on social media but the hard part comes next - how to leverage their likes, followers and fans into increased exposure, brand recognition and sales.

Some social media tips:

How to Get Your Business Started on foursquare

10 Facebook Marketing Tips for Small Businesses

How to Claim the Facebook Place for Your Local Business

How to Use Facebook and Twitter as a Customer Service Tool

Some social media savvy businesses

Facebook 'likes' / 4Square check-ins / Twitter followers
(as of as of 5/10/11)

Zingerman's Deli
29,243 FB-L  / 513 4SQ /  3662 twit

Underground Printing
7,991 FB-L / 136 4SQ w. specials / 548 twit
Lots of interaction, pics, people posting pics of their t-shirts

Cupcake Station
5,828 FB-L / 406 4SQ / 898 twit
Photos, reviews, lots of deals and giveaways

Jolly Pumpkin
 2,705 FB-L / 1,916 4SQ / 959 twit
 Info, events, industry stuff

Good Time Charley's
2,194 FB-L / 1,684 4SQ / --

Arbor Brewing Company
2,676 FB-L / 1,929 4SQ / 1,364 twit

Salon Vox
2,249 FB-L / 385 4SQ w. specials
Info, products, bios

Conor O'Neil's
2,139 FB-L / 2,245 4SQ / --
Events and interaction

Comet Coffee
1,374 FB-L / 819 4SQ / --
Pics, interaction, coffee nerd stuff

Sweetwaters on Washington
836 FB-L / 1,056 4SQ / 844 twit
Pics, personality

Real Seafood Company
1,157 FB-L / 304 4SQ / --
Shoutouts to celebs, menu updates, interaction, events

1,019 FB-L / 154 4SQ w. specials / --
Picks, industry info, specials

Grizzly Peak Brewing Co.
336 FB-L  / 3137 4SQ / 860 twit

Frita Batidos
1022 FB-L / 535 4SQ / --

Blue Tractor
808 FB-L /  1,680 4SQ w. specials / 516 twit

Vault of Midnight
1,556 FB-L / 385 4sq / 212 twitter
Mostly events

Underground Sounds
1,499 FB-L / 87 4SQ / --
Hours, new releases, topical, interaction

Richard Retyi is assistant director for Athletic Media Relations at the University of Michigan. He writes a biweekly(ish) column for AnnArbor.com  called "Lie to Your Cats About Santa" and has a cool new blog called InBedByEleven.com. His previous article for Concentrate was Building An Empire With A Burrito Joint.

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All photos by Doug Coombe


Curtis and Liz Sullivan at Vault of Midnight

Nina Juergens at Acme Mercantile with a can of Whoop-Ass

Nina at the counter of Acme Mercantile

Matt Bradish with some of the vinyl at Underground Sounds

Matt Bradish behind the counter at Underground Sounds

Curtis and Liz channel their inner Jeremy Wheeler

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