Online social media allows companies to increase business, promote loyalty and improve customer service, especially in the concrete industry. Despite these benefits, many are still slow to embrace the social media trend. However, the time to implement social media techniques is now, since people are going to talk about your company regardless of whether you choose to participate. The more you know and can manage, the better you are able to control your online reputation. Key to success is facilitating the conversation, inviting feedback, conversing with key targets and monitoring content.

Increase Business
There is no arguing that most people get their information today from an online source. Think about how you use the Internet in both your personal and professional life. How do you find out about a company or new product? Your customers and potential customers are no different. Using online social media allows you to have a presence beyond your website.

To begin, the first step is to identify where your target audience is communicating and then join the conversation. Put yourself in your target audience’s shoes and type in keywords that they would use to find you. What shows up in a Google search? If you are not one of the first results, it’s time to invest in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) as web surfers rarely go beyond the first few listings. The next step is to share content, contribute and be a part of the online social community. If you haven’t joined in the conversation on Twitter, started a blog or added social bookmarking tools such as Delicious, now is the time. Also, make sure that your company has a Wikipedia page.

For the business-to-business world, and specifically the concrete industry, LinkedIn should be considered one of your key outlets. Join groups and add to the conversation. Then, go to the answer section and share your expertise. To join groups, simply go to the top right of the LinkedIn page, click search groups and enter keywords, then add the groups you are interested in. Within groups, share expertise, comment on previous discussions or start a new one. For LinkedIn answers, go to the top left area of your screen and click Answers. Go to the advanced Answers search tab, then use relevant keywords. If someone is asking a question that you know the answer to, reply and show your expertise.

In time, these efforts will pay off. Pick at least two online social media outlets to be active in but keep in mind your target audience. If you are trying to recruit potential employees, start a Facebook fun page and get professionals to join and answer questions, share photos and events and facilitate conversation. Be authentic and always provide videos and photos when possible.

Promote Loyalty
Online social media is much cheaper than traditional advertising venues. The medium also provides the opportunity for you to gain feedback on your products and services. However, though most sites are free to use, they require monitoring and employee time to contribute to the conversation. With regard to monitoring, there are many companies that provide social media monitoring services such as PR Newswire, Vocus, Cision and Radian6. These services range from $500 to $1,000 each month and allow you to monitor what is being said about you firm.

For those customers that already are using your product or firm’s services, give them a place to talk and contribute ideas. A good example in our industry is the social media presence built by the American Concrete Institute (ACI), who is extremely active on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/pages/American-Concrete-Institute-ACI/79308249901?ref=ts) with 1,767 in a fan page and LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=101510&trk=anetsrch_name&goback=%2Egdr_1244934274358_10 ) with 1,989 members.

According to Kevin Mlutkowski, LEED AP, Marketing Manager for ACI, the Institute started their Facebook group to attract more applicants for their scholarships, but soon discovered that those in the profession were joining as well. As a result, they changed their goal to reach a broader audience. Since beginning the Facebook initiative, scholarship applications have tripled, whereas before, not enough students applied. Mlutkowksi said that ACI realizes that their audience is now communicating online, so they have chosen various venues to communicate to their target audience. For example, ACI uses the updates feature through fan pages on Facebook to update members on ACI news and activities as well as to promote events. To increase followers, ACI sends out an email to those new to their information database telling them to join ACI on LinkedIn and Facebook. They also include the links on their website and in all newsletters and emails.

“Participating in online social media has provided us an excellent opportunity to engage our members and customers in two-way communications. Through the ACI LinkedIn group, we have provided a forum for concrete industry professionals to network with each other, as well as ask and answer each others’ technical questions. With Facebook, we are reaching out to our target audience, and — in particular — engaging students and younger members in the American Concrete Institute by using channels that they regularly use,” said Mlutkowski.

Improve Customer Services
Customer service departments also are utilizing online social media because it allows for a two-way conversation. For example, in the concrete industry, many are using Twitter accounts to respond in real-time to customer questions and ideas. Examples include http://twitter.com/TiltWerks, http://twitter.com/ConcreteThinker and http://twitter.com/WorldofConcrete. Keep in mind that Twitter is about conversation, not just sending information — so respond, retweet and answer questions. Use Search.Twitter.Com to monitor what is being said about you and respond to questions, comments or complaints.

Additionally, monitor what is being said about your product or services on customer comment pages. For example, most websites allow users to comment or rate products or services. And if someone asks you a question or complains, respond in a timely manner. Also, keep in mind that your website should allow for your customers to contact you in many ways. You should always provide a contact form in addition to a phone number, e-mail and mailing address so the user can choose what is best for them. If you provide an e-mail or a phone number, always return calls or messages in 24 hours.

Now is the Time to Get Involved!
Online social media is here to stay, so it is crucial for companies to dive in and join in the conversation. If you don’t, your competition will. Remember that the online world is likely to talk about your company regardless, so be sure to participate. However, before you start with online social media, determine where your target audience is talking, then engage with them and monitor activity. Be a part of the community, remain transparent and provide useful content. Also, don’t expect results overnight. Businesses that are successful and have seen results with online social media spend 32 hours per month on one profile during the course of one year.