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Small Town Social Media

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Many people probably don't remember the last billboard they saw. Some people probably don't remember the last Facebook status they read.

That's why T.J. Kaikobad says there's little difference between I-75 and the information highway. When it comes to advertisements -- whether it's a billboard or a Facebook timeline post -- attention spans don't last long.

"But for any small town business, social media is like raw electricity," Kaikobad said. "That's why it's so important to grab a customer's interest right away. You've just got to flip the switch to turn the lights on. But like any other tool, it's only as good as you use it. The more you know about it, the better. In the early days, people thought, 'I'll just go and put this out on Facebook. It will make me untold riches.' If it was that simple, there would be a lot of people with untold riches."

Maybe it's not getting him untold riches, but Kaikobad, owner of the Dalton Depot restaurant, is one of several local business owners who rely on social media like Facebook to build their business. James Kelley, director of digital strategy at h2b creative, a Dalton advertising firm, says using social media has given an edge to several business owners here.

"I've been in Dalton for four years and I've seen the dramatic change for business," Kelley said. "Social media is helping business owners influence northwest Georgia and I think we're better than some others in the country. What local businesses are doing is what we call 'so-lo-mob,' or social local mobile. It's interacting and creating an online community that is built exclusively in Dalton. It helps businesses here compete in the larger social media community, letting them fight the curve with Chattanooga and Atlanta."

One tool in that fight is Foursquare, a social networking application that lets smartphone users log their visits to nearby locations using their phone's global positioning system (GPS). Rusty Davis, owner of Iron Gate Pizzeria, uses Foursquare to get demographic information from his customers. Anyone who checks into the restaurant gets a 10 percent discount.

"That encourages them to log in and that provides me with so much information (from the person's profile), which is surprising for an app that's free of charge," Davis said. "Foursquare really has that pyramid effect where if one person checks in, everyone they know sees it. Then maybe one or two more people build on that and check in. And then more see it ... It's really more about building loyalty as opposed to getting new business, but there's no charge so it's great."

The cost-free aspect of social media is what makes it so appealing, Kaikobad said.

"Too often, trial and error in advertising comes at a cost," he said. "Social media kind of removes that cost and lets you experiment to see what works and what doesn't work. Sometimes, with other types of advertising, when you go through trial and error and by the time you go through the learning curve, you've had a huge loss somewhere."

Larger companies might still have losses.

"Big companies have spent millions of dollars on research to figure out how to offer good customer service through social media," Kelley said. "But the businesses in Dalton have been able to use social media on a smaller level and still provide relationships and service that big businesses cannot give."

All of the benefits of social media don't make it "a magic wand," Kaikobad said.

"Maybe it was for (Mark) Zuckerberg and the gang," he added. "But for me, I see it as another tool you have to learn. Getting out there on Facebook and making a post doesn't cut it. You have to know what you're doing."

Kelley agrees.

"There's no insta-magic formula here," he said. "Social media is about relationships, and building relationships -- online or off -- takes time and dedication. Businesses should already know this, since they've been built on relationships since the beginning of time."

The benefit of social media is that business owners can create online "ambassadors" who can carry their products throughout the Internet.

"It's about building loyalty," Kelley said. "You could have a million followers and not provide a quality service. It's not going to do what one real relationship could do for you. But if you have, say, 250 likes on your Facebook page and you're very engaged with them -- well then you have loyalty that can spread over to a million people."

Kasey Carpenter, owner of the Oakwood Cafe and the Sweet Spot, says he builds most of his loyalty at the Sweet Spot with a text service that offers discounts to return customers. Customers give their cellphone number to the person at the register and with each sixth purchase of frozen yogurt get a discount off their seventh purchase.

"We have about 12,000 members with that loyalty program," Carpenter said. "That's a pretty good program. We're more than pleased with it. Advertising has been increasingly difficult and I don't see businesses growing if they don't use social media."

The texting service is good for return customers, Carpenter said, but when it comes to bringing in new business he turns to Facebook.

"The Sweet Spot's Facebook page has about 6,000 likes right now and the Oakwood has about 4,000 likes," he said. "I'd say that social media is responsible for about 40 percent new business. People share things on their walls if we have a special. It's especially good for grand openings. But with social media, you have to keep it fresh. You have to constantly update to keep customers interested. It's a necessary evil. That's how the world works now and if you don't do it then you're missing the boat."

Even if a business owner is on the boat they have to be relevant in their social media activity if they're expecting to build relationships, said Katie Freeland, a copywriter and social media strategist with h2b.

"Being successful with social media has to do with monitoring what people are actually talking about," Freeland said. "You have to watch viral videos and read news articles that people share a lot. You have to go off that as a foundation to create a conversation that's engaging. You have to relate with customers instead of having a static headline that doesn't ask for any interaction. You don't want to throw a product out on a social media platform and just walk away from the process."

But you don't want to rely too much on social media either, Freeland added.

"I think it's a good first step and it starts moving things in the right direction, but you want to take the next step to move the relationship offline to make it a more personal relationship. That's what builds the bigger networks, bigger customer bases."

Building a customer base is what Danielle Kaikobad, T.J. Kaikobad's wife and owner of the Coffee Train, is trying to do.

"We're in our first year -- we opened in October -- so we're using social media to get the word out," she said. "We also use an app called Square Wallet. It lets you save your bank information on your phone and pay from your phone. You never even have to walk up to the register. You can even prepay before you get there. If you forget your wallet, you can still get your coffee. Every second counts sometimes. Sometimes, people only have a 5-minute break before they have to go back to work. We also have a card slider on an iPad that lets people get in and out quickly, but being able to pay beforehand has really helped business. That said, you can't just cut out the older generation. You have to meet both. Not everyone checks their iPhone or Facebook for a promotion."

No matter which generation is involved, business owners must stick with "the basics of marketing," T.J. Kaikobad said.

"The basics are ... you've got to capture the person's attention, deliver your message and seal the deal in 15 seconds or less," he said. "In the old days, I was a big paragraph person. I wanted to tell everyone about everything. You can't do that anymore. Attention spans are down to bullet points now.

"If you get out there and do a huge paragraph on these great oysters you have, talking about how these oysters are limited and well-maintained, maybe 200 people see it. But maybe only one will read the whole paragraph. And maybe he'll be like, 'Man, this is pretty cool. Oh well. I don't like oysters.'"

If big paragraph posts don't work for business owners, what does?

"Genuine enthusiasm," Kaikobad said. "Out biggest Facebook promotion was last year for '80s Night. We're having it again this year (it was Saturday), but people seem a bit complacent about it. I remember... when we started promoting it back in 2012 there was so much excitement. That excitement came through when we would put it out there on Facebook and people responded, they got excited, too, and it turned out great. There's no substitute or formula that can recreate enthusiasm and drive."

That might be why social media works, Carpenter said.

"It keeps you on your game," he said. "Thirty years ago, you would take a yellow page out in the Yellow Book. Or maybe you would do a radio ad and leave it alone. Maybe business owners got a little lazy with advertising. Now you have to constantly be creative and competitive. It keeps you from sitting on your hands because you're reinventing the wheel every three or four weeks. It's challenging sometimes, but that's good."

Kelley agrees.

"At the end of the day, there is no set strategy for every business," he said. "Like any aspect of a good business, social media is about building engaging content and giving the client what they want. That's what people should keep in mind."


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