Getting Social

It's Business and It's PersonalLooking to build their customer bases, area businesses are discovering that social networking isn’t just for teenagers anymore


By Lilly Rockwell

In the midst of a slumping housing market, Destin Realtor Jessica Jones was eager to find a way to attract more clients than the ones who were responding to her print advertisements and word-of-mouth networking.

She turned to Twitter, a fast-growing social media website that allows users to post 140-character messages while monitoring what other people are writing.

“Looking for a place to stay during your next visit? Take a look at this studio unit available to rent!” she writes on her @CompassRealtyFL Twitter account.

Over the next few weeks, she posted links on Twitter to local events, such as Seaside’s farmer’s market, and articles on how the real estate market is poised for a turnaround.

Jones is a Twitter fan. But she hasn’t been one for long.

“When I started, I wasn’t really sure about it,” said Jones, who owns Compass Realty. But after a few months, she grew to love the quirky Twitter lingo. She has accumulated more than 350 followers and has brought in new clients solely because of her posts on Twitter and Facebook.

“It’s easier for people to engage in something like Twitter or Facebook rather than a cold call,” Jones said. “They get a feel for your personality.”

In Fort Walton Beach, Jeff McAlum manages the Twitter and Facebook accounts for San Gelato Café, a gelato and coffee shop with locations in Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Utah. McAlum, the marketing coordinator for San Gelato Café, said Twitter is easy to use and versatile.

Although he uses Twitter to post news about the café, McAlum says the social media tool is much more than just a way to disseminate news. He also uses it to converse with current and potential customers — and establish the company as a go-to resource for everything related to the café, whether it’s links to articles on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or “word of the day” Italian lessons.

In the year and a half the company has maintained Twitter and Facebook accounts, McAlum said it has started to see results.

“I’m positive we’ve driven traffic and sales from it,” he said.

For instance, McAlum wrote on Twitter recently that San Gelato Café was looking to open franchise locations. He immediately got a response from someone interested in purchasing a franchise.

“That’s a sales lead,” McAlum said. “If social media didn’t exist, we would have had to take out ads in franchise publications, but that can be several thousand dollars a month.”

Compass Realty and the San Gelato Café are part of a tsunami of small and medium-size businesses and individuals turning to social media. Many are finding that it’s a way to boost revenue, network with customers and competitors, and improve customer service.

They’re following a lead set by Fortune 500 companies such as Wells Fargo, AT&T and Southwest Airlines, which have fully integrated social media into their business model. They use websites like Facebook and Twitter to post news, answer questions or complaints, offer discounts, and provide a close connection with customers.

Though Twitter and Facebook can and frequently are used for personal reasons, such as posting pictures of an individual’s family vacation, it is businesses that have been able to harness the power of social media to help improve their bottom line or improve their reputation.

Internet usage data shows social media sites are experiencing tremendous growth. Depending on the time of year, Facebook has reached the title of the most visited website in the United States. (Other times, Google has held the title, though Facebook and other social networks are ranked high.)

From a marketing perspective, social media offers the ability to reach consumers based on their location, interests, gender, age or job — an approach known as targeted advertising. And social media users typically are in sought-after age groups, technologically savvy and affluent.

It’s more than a passing trend. Social media gadflies characterize it as a communication revolution, similar to how television and the Internet transformed the way people interact with brands, seek information and entertain themselves.

Valeria Lento is a social media convert who manages the Facebook and Twitter pages for Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa. While working for public relations firm Edelman in Miami, she discovered that social media had evolved since her days using it in college to communicate with friends.

“I started seeing how social media is no longer just a fad,” Lento said. “I don’t even like the term social media — to me it’s communications.” She especially likes Twitter. “With 140 characters, you could reach out to anyone in the world and exchange ideas and articles and foster relationships. It’s really allowed me to position myself well in my field,” she said.

Even public relations experts who were familiar with the old-fashioned world of news releases, phone calls and press conferences are championing this new world of social media.

“What we’re seeing is a different type of communication with a different type of vehicle,” said Josh Hallett, a new-media strategist at Orlando-based Voce Communications who organized the successful BlogOrlando conferences geared toward learning about social media. Add social media to the buffet of advertising choices available to businesses, such as print, radio and TV, he added: “Twitter and Facebook are just different ways to communicate.”

But social media still is a frighteningly new concept for many business owners, who are skeptical that time spent chatting on Twitter or posting pictures on Facebook will really benefit their business. Won’t Twitter just be replaced by some other newfangled Web invention?

Who has time for all this online stuff, anyway?

McAlum says social media still is in its infancy and urges newcomers to have patience.

“It’s developing and changing every day, but one day it will become an extremely important sales tool,” he said. “It’s a good investment right now.”

Will it work for my business?

Some social media experts say every business can stand to benefit from using social media, no matter what its industry or size. And people who aren’t using social media for strictly business reasons still can gain from the networking benefits they provide. Social networks also give businesses an opportunity to learn from peers, improve their brand and increase revenue.

Gerry Gilmer, an associate in communication at Florida State University in Tallahassee, emphasizes that social media is a powerful tool for businesses because it is considered a trustworthy way of talking about a brand. One reason for the trust, Gilmer said, is because the information is passed along through friend networks. If a friend on Facebook recommends a new cupcake shop, “I will trust them. She likes it, I will like it,” Gilmer said.

But social media isn’t for everyone. There’s that familiar term ROI, or return on investment, which is used as a yardstick to measure the success of most advertising and media campaigns. With social media, businesses are struggling to establish a way to measure whether time spent online is bringing in dollars.

Short-term boosts in sales or instant customer satisfaction in a product or company can’t be guaranteed just by using these new Internet tools.

Hallett and other experts advise that business owners must be discriminating in how much time they spend with social media. The first step, he said, is to look at your established clients, customers or donors and determine if they are on Facebook or Twitter.

“If less than 10 percent are, it’s not a good use of your time,” Hallett said. “If maybe 40 percent are using it, than maybe it is.”

Experts also discourage business owners from joining social media sites if they aren’t committed to it.

“It is free, but that might be a little misleading because you have to invest a lot of time in it,” McAlum said. To do it right, social media sites require constant monitoring.

“A lot of businesses are latching on to it for the wrong reasons, and that is because they think they need to be on Twitter,” Gilmer said.

There are even some businesses, though perhaps not many, for which it just doesn’t make sense to be on social media, said Meryl Evans, a Texas-based writer and social media expert.

“It depends on the business goals and the target market,” Evans said. Construction companies, defense contractors and manufacturing facilities may not even have a website, much less a need to accumulate “friends” on Facebook.

Setting a Strategy

After establishing that social media is right for a business, determine your goal.

Is the purpose to win over disgruntled customers, improve a corporate image, increase sales, monitor competitors, network with potential clients, or all of the above?

Target the people in your community known as “influencers,”  who have a heavy presence on social media sites, said Jessica Mansfield, president of Miramar Beach-based Vivid Publicity and Marketing. These people can get your message out to an even bigger audience, and they are considered a trusted source of information.

Next, determine how to measure whether you’ve met your goal. One simple measure of success in social media is the number of Twitter followers or Facebook friends one has. There also are customer-service surveys and social media-only coupons.

If the goal is to monitor what is being said about a company or industry, there are free software applications for Twitter, such as TweetDeck, that give alerts through keywords. For instance, a bakery in Okaloosa County could have alerts for “Niceville” and “birthday party.”

With Facebook, there are opportunities to target customers based on their interests, location, political or religious affiliation, age, gender or relationship status. For instance, ads for local bridal shops could be placed on the Facebook page of a newly engaged Destin woman.

Success Stories

Many banks, airlines and Fortune 500 firms have found success using social media, as have sole proprietors and small businesses such as restaurants and real estate agents.

Cable company Comcast used Twitter to improve customer satisfaction. Since joining Twitter in 2008, the company has improved by 5 percentage points its rankings in the American Customer Satisfaction Index, from 54 percent to 59 percent approval.

“(Comcast employees and executives) are known in particular for getting on these social-networking sites and finding negative things being said about them, and immediately contacting customers to try to make it right,” said Gilmer, the FSU associate in communication.

Comcast has a team of nearly a half-dozen people, headed by Frank Eliason, the national director for customer service at Comcast, just to respond to queries sent through Twitter. At a conference in 2009, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said Twitter had “changed the culture of our company.”

There also are the cable provider’s detractors, such as the @comcastcaresnot Twitter account. Its presence confirms what social media experts say: It’s better for companies to stay on the offensive, jumping into the fray and helping disgruntled customers, rather than letting their critics go unchecked online.

Emerald Coast business owners using social media report mostly success stories.

Mike Ragsdale and his wife, Angela, moved to Santa Rosa Beach four years ago from Birmingham, Ala. They soon started hosting guests at their beachside home. He loved the community but was disappointed that there wasn’t a handy online guide for tourists or residents that could point them to a good local restaurant, or locations offering live music or festivals.

Seeing an opportunity, Mike Ragsdale started, which is now the go-to destination for anyone living or traveling to the “30A” communities, named for the highway that connects these towns, including Seaside, Rosemary Beach and WaterColor. The website includes a detailed calendar of upcoming events and is a good showcase for tourists doing online research for upcoming vacations.

Ragsdale likes using Facebook to promote The site has more than 8,800 fans on Facebook, even though Ragsdale said he was “skeptical” at first of using that website.

“There is no question it’s been a huge success and something that is very important for the evolution of our brand,” Ragsdale said. He posts pictures regularly on Facebook and writes updates on the latest happenings in the 30A communities. “We are evangelizing,” he said.

“At the end of the day, what helps the business is that I’m out there sharing information and sharing great experiences,” Ragsdale added. “I may be walking into a gallery and taking a picture of a photo on the wall, and we’ll post on Facebook, ‘Guess where I am and win a free T-shirt.’”

Still, other business owners say it’s not yet clear whether their efforts on social media will bear fruit. Given the time spent developing content for social media sites, many business owners and marketing officials hesitate to give it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

Even San Gelato Café’s McAlum, an unabashed Twitter fan, acknowledges that social media sites still need to prove to businesses that they are worth their time and provide a good return on investment.

“It does have a little ways to go before providing significant value for a company,” he said.

It’s Not Business, It’s Personal

Approach social media with a willingness to let the old rules of public relations, with formal press releases, carefully crafted speeches and campaigns, fall away in favor of a more relaxed tone with personal interjections mixed with business news, social media experts say.

Some of the most popular business-oriented Facebook pages or Twitter accounts, such as the one by online shoe retailer CEO Tony Hsieh, include a mix of personal asides and business news. Hsieh writes about his plane being delayed in Dubai and includes an e-mail he sent to Zappos employees about the company’s recent merger with

That cliché about not just writing about what you had for lunch? That may be true, but sometimes writing about what you ate can add a human touch to your updates.

“The smaller the company is, the more important it is to personalize it,” said Andy Martin, the president of Orlando-based Al Dente Marketing.

Don’t be too aggressive about promoting your business, social media experts say. Marketing through social media is subtle. It takes the form of advice, links to company blogs, or discounts and coupons.

“Don’t talk about yourself too much,” McAlum said.

Sites such as Facebook and Twitter also encourage ongoing dialogue. It’s not enough to post a status update and log off. To be successful, a user might also comment on someone’s Facebook picture or respond to a Twitter update that resonates with him or her.

The public can view conversations between two people on a website such as Twitter and Facebook at large, or by a list of approved friends or followers. Social media experts say this can be a benefit, allowing a business to illustrate how it handles customer questions and complaints.

What’s Next?

Reluctance to participate in social media eventually will give way to widespread use and acceptance, social media experts say. However, they caution it may not be the right tool for every business, just as some businesses haven’t developed websites.

“The big mistakes are people who just want to wait,” said Martin, of Al Dente Marketing. “There is no rule book for this. They say, ‘Show me a case study.’ The case study will be you.”

Editor's Note: Get more from Emerald Coast Magazine by liking us on Facebook ( and following us on Twitter (


Social Media 101

What is social media?
It’s a catch-all phrase for websites that allow users to connect and share information with each other. Most social media sites allow users to pick and choose who can see the information being posted, so it allows users to “cherry-pick” their audience.

What types of social media sites exist?

Twitter: A micro-blogging service similar to text-messaging that allows users to post 140-character status updates that can be viewed by “followers.” Twitter has set up a Business 101 website that is a good guide for businesses at

Facebook: Users create their own “pages,” or miniature websites, where they can post information including photos, videos, links to other Web pages and status updates, as well as respond to what other people are writing. One-on-one chatting is also available, as are private messages. Privacy settings give you control over who sees your content.

YouTube: Designed for uploading and sharing videos. Allows users to comment on videos, share them with other users, and post easily on other websites. Content can be anything from  “American Idol” replays to a video of your cat doing a silly trick.

LinkedIn: This service is for professionals interested in networking with business and personal contacts. Each user has a network of contacts that can be viewed by other users. It’s popular to use LinkedIn when looking for a job, and it serves as a virtual résumé.

Blogger/WordPress: Both Blogger and WordPress are platforms that allow users to write online journals and, in some cases, develop simple websites or “blogs,” short for “Web Logs.” Users control privacy settings. These sites are often used in tandem with Twitter and Facebook.

Should I pick Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn? Which one is best for a business? If you can, do all three, say social media experts. If you’re a consultant or in a business that requires a lot of networking, pick Twitter. If you need to post lots of videos, pictures and host events, choose Facebook. If you’re looking for a job, check out LinkedIn.

Isn’t Twitter just people posting boring things about what they had for lunch? Sure, some Twitter users might write about more mundane things, but the vast majority of people on Twitter use it for professional reasons, networking with industry leaders, talking with customers and potential customers, and having conversations.

Can I sign up for an account but not actually use it? Sure. Experts say the best way to learn about social media is to sit back and watch.

How do I find friends or people to follow? Twitter has a “find people” search function in which you can type in a name or a business and see if it matches a Twitter account. There also is, which is similar to Google in that it searches all Twitter accounts for a word or phrase. On Facebook, use “search” at the top of your main page and enter a name. There also is targeted advertising available based on a Facebook user’s interests or affiliations.

What is the difference between being a "Facebook fan" and "liking" a business? Recently, Facebook changed the look of its business accounts by eliminating the "become a fan" button and replacing it with a "like" button, which is similar. The options and rules are constantly changing, which makes keeping up with social media an ever-evolving job.

I keep hearing about Twitter and Facebook applications. Should I use them? Some Twitter applications are very useful. TweetDeck, for instance, makes it easier to set up keyword alerts and track what is being said about your company or industry. There also are handy mobile applications, typically for smart phones, that allow users to access their account, update a status, and even submit video and photos.

Should I pay attention to who is “following” or “friending” me? Yes. Social media experts say it can reflect badly on your brand if there are spam or pornography accounts attached to your company. Go through your followers periodically and block the inappropriate ones. This will remove them from your followers list.


Social Media by the NumbersFacebook

  • Founded February 2004
  • More than 400 million active users
  • Average user has 130 friends
  • Valued at close to $10 billion in 2009
  • Fan base is worth a total of more than $245 billion
  • People spend over 500 billion minutes per month on Facebook

Compiled from Facebook and The New York Times


  • Founded August 2006
  • More than 105 million registered users
  • There are more women on Twitter than men (55% vs. 45%)
  • New York has the most Twitter users of any city
  • Most of Twitter's traffic — 75% — comes from third-party clients and applications.
  • Valued at $1 billion in 2009

Compiled from analytics firm Sysomos and The New York Times



  • Founded May 2003
  • Over 70 million users
  • Executives from all Fortune 500 companies are LinkedIn members
  • Valued at $1 billion in 2008

Compiled from LinkedIn and The New York Times


  • Founded February 2005
  • Hundreds of thousands of videos are uploaded daily.
  • Each minute, 20 hours of video are uploaded
  • Of all users, 51 percent go to YouTube weekly

Google acquired YouTube for $1.65 billion in 2006 — Compiled from YouTube