Heather van Frankenhuyzen marked down some scarves and pashminas at her downtown Bangor boutique, Bella Luna, on Thursday, and a customer asked that she keep a few for her to buy.
A bit earlier in the week, Governor’s Restaurant touted its mushroom ravioli and got an almost immediate “yum” feedback from one patron.
And up in Houlton on Friday, Dow’s Market gave a shout-out to Dwayne Goodall, Greg Smith and Wendy Scott and let them know they had a free pizza coming to them on their birthday.
Each business was connecting with customers through social media — in each case, Facebook — to build relationships, drive sales and keep their companies out in front of the public. Many small businesses are exploring the myriad avenues of social media that are out there, from Facebook to Twitter, Foursquare to LinkedIn.
“The main benefit is it’s free, it reaches so many people in the area, it links everybody together,” van Frankenhuyzen said. “It works so well for us.”
Experts and explorers in using social media for businesses suggest whatever strategy you pursue requires time and energy, if not necessarily money. But there are benefits to being able to reach a targeted audience and maintain a relationship with them.
Chrystie Corns, president of Portland-based social media consulting firm Thirteen Thirty Marketing, noted a good reason for Maine businesses to explore the area: There are more than 680,000 Facebook users in this state alone.
“If you have a business in Maine, your clients are on Facebook,” Corns said.
Emily Dow, who co-owns Dow’s Market with her husband, Reggie, said she launched the Facebook page because they don’t have much of an advertising budget and attempts to market themselves in traditional venues hadn’t worked well in the past.
Dow’s is tucked into a residential neighborhood in Houlton, and the market has been there in one form or another for about 100 years. Dow said she has a photograph of the market with horses hitched outside.
So to connect with customers and to drive business to the market, they put up daily specials and run the birthday giveaway as well. One feature of Facebook is notifications when your friends’ birthdays arrive. Dow’s had close to 1,200 “fans” on Facebook on Friday, each getting daily updates on what’s on the grill.
“This way, they have a little niggle of us,” Dow said.
Van Frankenhuyzen said she checks her boutique’s Facebook page three to four times a day, about five minutes each time. She’s careful about what she posts and polices her page as well, making sure everything is appropriate.
With 803 friends on the site, she puts up pictures of new clothing arrivals but also chats about her young daughter, new recipes she has tried and other things.
“For us, relationship-building is very important — it’s more about that than then advertising, especially being in a small town,” van Frankenhuyzen said. “If we were in a big city, it might be a different story.”
Elizabeth Sutherland, a partner at the Bangor PR firm Sutherland Weston, noted that van Frankenhuyzen’s Facebook page has a lot of conversation going on around the new products and what she has to offer.
“She’s using her Facebook page to share a little bit about her personality and her personal nature — but for the most part, it’s an opportunity to develop relationships with current and potential customers,” Sutherland said.
Potential customers aren’t necessarily looking to social media sources to perform traditional price comparisons, Sutherland said.
“What they really want to know is what sort of business are you, what sort of person are you, why should they care about you?” Sutherland said.
Randy Wadleigh, CEO of Governor’s, said social media is now incorporated into his company’s strategic marketing plan.
“It takes some maintenance and work to get it set up,” Wadleigh said. “We have people internally that respond, remark to people’s Facebook comments.”
The chain used it to promote the voting process for its latest Governor’s burger, and it was part of celebrating the chain’s 50th anniversary last year, he said. They use it as a tool to keep connected to guests and see it as complementing the traditional advertising Governor’s does, he said.
“In today’s economic environment, it’s part of a service and it’s almost expected now,” Wadleigh said. “It’s kind of like, ‘Everybody needs a Web page.’ Now, everyone needs a Facebook.”
He suggested that doing social media right involves some time and effort. Corns and Sutherland agreed.
“It’s not a set and forget,” Corns said. “You have to be constantly nurturing that community you’re cultivating.”
But, she added, she suggests to clients that they set up some basic Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages, even if they don’t have a ton time to dedicate to them. They help in search engine optimization, she said, and can boost their firm’s Google ranking.
Sutherland said the early part of the year is often when entrepreneurs and small-business owners look to new ideas with ambition. Small-business owners considering social media should lurk on sites first, she suggested, getting a sense of what works and what doesn’t, what might help them tell their company’s story online.
Frederick Greenhalgh, online marketing manager at Revision Energy, a solar power firm with offices in Portland and Liberty, suggested that businesses look at their peers in their sectors to see what they are doing in social media. There are plenty of business breakfasts, seminars, webinars, and other sources of information and training on social media as well, he said.
His company uses a variety of social media outlets, from blogs to e-newsletters, Facebook to Twitter and YouTube, Greenhalgh said. They use them to get new information and trends out to clients and to keep the community up-to-date on the latest technology.
Year over year, the e-newsletter membership list has tripled, blog readership is up by 50 percent, and the firm’s Twitter and Facebook followings grow roughly 15 percent each month, he said.
“We go out, we meet people in the world, and it’s nice to have this digital place to keep reminding them that we’re out there,” Greenhalgh said.