News Column

Social Networking: Technology Is Key to Business Success

Oct. 22, 2012

Ron Sylvester

Imagine walking down the Strip and seeing a billboard blink your name, offer match play on your favorite casino game and 25 percent off a new pair of shoes.

That day isn't far away, experts say, as businesses become more sophisticated in how they network and interact with consumers.

Eight years after the launch of Facebook and six years into Twitter, businesses understand the value of social media. Now they must learn how to catch -- and keep -- customers' attention, particularly as consumers become increasingly distracted with new ways to communicate.

Google recently found that the majority of consumers -- 90 percent -- use multiple screens to perform simple tasks online, such as booking a hotel room or buying clothes. A person, for example, might see an ad for a car on television, look up reviews on a phone, price out the vehicle on an iPad and search for dealerships on a laptop.

"We're seeing all these different types of media coming together right now," said Jeremiah Owyang, author of the "Web Strategist" blog and an expert in online marketing. "Companies are going to have to learn how to master all of them. They're going to have to learn how their customers move through the world, so they can effectively reach them."

There soon could be a fifth screen to capture customers' attention: the oversized LED signs on Las Vegas Boulevard. Experts predict that within a few years, those billboards will offer people personalized invites to casinos and stores, changing the way businesses network with the Strip's millions of visitors.

"You're going to see technologies that allow companies to use those big screens to call you by name and say, 'Come on in, we've got a deal for you,'" said Owyang, of the Altimeter Group in Silicon Valley. "New York is a testing ground for this. Vegas is next in line. With its Strip and all the big boards, it's a natural place for this kind of technology to emerge."

The billboards would track people using their smart phones.

American Eagle clothing company in New York City, for instance, uses a 15,000-square-foot LED screen to broadcast photos of customers over Times Square. People can take pictures of themselves in new outfits and post them to the screen.

The billboard makes American Eagle stand out and creates a novel experience for consumers -- something they remember and share with their friends.

The Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood offers a taste of what's likely to come in Las Vegas. Every Friday, the company lists people to follow on Twitter on its 11,000-square-foot Strip-front LED billboard. The mall posts the Twitter users' photos and handles to thousands of people below.

"We really looked at this as a unique way to engage our community," Senior Marketing Director Wendy Albert said.

Like many businesses, the shopping center has tried to engage customers through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Foursquare and other social media. Nothing has worked as well as the "Follow Friday" Twitter program on the big board, Albert said.

Miracle Mile saw its Twitter and Facebook followers increase by 50 percent in the past year because of the campaign, Albert said.

"Whenever we put it up on the screens, we take a picture of it and send it to the people we mention so they can send it out to their Facebook and Twitter friends," Albert said. "It never fails to get retweeted."

Miracle Mile recently earned a silver designation from the International Council of Shopping Centers during an award ceremony recognizing innovation in retail marketing.

But increasing followers isn't the only goal. Effective social media should bring people into stores, too.

In the first year of its Follow Friday program, Miracle Mile increased its traffic by almost 18 percent, Albert said. The mall now gets between 75,000 and 80,000 daily visitors.

Still, not every business has a giant board on Las Vegas Boulevard that it can use to sustain interest and attract new customers.

No worry. Social media can benefit owners of all sizes and types of company.

However, the smaller the company, the less important it is to have an elaborate networking plan. A Facebook page or Twitter account may be enough.

"My rule of thumb is if you know most of your advocates by first name, you don't need an advocacy program," marketing expert Rob Fuggetta writes in "Brand Advocates: Turning Enthusiastic Customers into a Powerful Marketing Force."

The key is getting customers to talk about a business or product.

"I've tried every marketing trick and tool in the book, and nothing works better than word of mouth," Fuggetta said.

The most effective social media engages customers in conversations, either among themselves or with representatives of a business. Websites and mobile apps give consumers a platform on which to compliment or complain and businesses a way to listen, respond and learn.

"It used to happen over the water cooler at work," Fuggetta said. "Now it's happening on Facebook, Twitter and Trip Advisor. But the value of fan and follower is zero until they start recommending you."

Positive reviews on websites such as Yelp and Trip Advisor are an important way to funnel customers to a business.

Consider the example of Circus Circus, one of the Strip's oldest properties.

Zuberance, the company Fuggetta started to track online reviews of Las Vegas hotels, found that nine out of 10 Circus Circus customers said they'd highly recommend the resort. In the hospitality industry, satisfactory reviews from half a resort's customers is average.

Moreover, of the 85 percent of guests who rated their Circus Circus stay as excellent, more than a third used social media to recommend the resort to their friends. The industry average is 1 percent.

"It's a truly amazing statistic at Circus Circus," Fuggetta said. "People love Circus Circus at about 35 times the average rate. It blows your mind."

Part of Circus Circus' secret is making it easy for visitors to recommend it. The casino-hotel sends guests emails with embedded links that allow them to post positive reviews of the resort with a few simple clicks.

"A positive review on Trip Advisor is like the Holy Grail in this industry," Fuggetta said. "We've found a way to increase those number of reviews. That's been kind of our secret sauce."

Zuberance also helped the Palms go from three positive Trip Advisor reviews every week to more than 100.

Fuguetta has found that every customer who shares a positive experience about a company online brings in an average of three new customers to that company. A recent Nielsen survey found that 92 percent of people trust recommendations from their friends, while 70 percent trust online reviews.

"If you have 10,000 advocates, they will bring you 30,000 customers," Fuguetta said. "That's in the millions of dollars."

For bigger companies, the challenge is keeping up with fickle customers who are barraged by advertising and technology. Businesses have to ensure their message translates seamlessly across multiple platforms.

That becomes harder to do when a company divides its social media duties between marketing, advertising and corporate communications departments.

"Each of those groups within a single company might be talking to the same customer at the same time and not realize how each are relating to them," Owyang said. "It can be daunting. You have to have one total unit, one experience. You have to think of them all in tandem."


For more stories covering the world of technology, please see HispanicBusiness' Tech Channel



Source: (c)2012 the Las Vegas Sun (Las Vegas, Nev.). Distributed by MCT Information Services


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