by David Cahn
With the recent boom in popularity of social networking websites, more and more companies are looking to these forums for ways to promote their business. Sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Yelp! are rapidly becoming the go-to resources for establishing and maintaining relationships, finding referrals, and conducting competitive recognizance. Blogs and consumer forums also are becoming more and more popular for sharing customer experiences – both good and bad – with a virtually unlimited audience.
I recently attended an International Franchise Association regional program near Washington, D.C., during which Paula Valentine, Senior Director of E-Commerce for Choice Hotels, presented an interesting summary of the uses of social networking by Choice Hotels and other businesses with a national presence. Ms. Valentine emphasized that expanding your Internet presence beyond the traditional website and online business listings can serve to: (i) reach current and potential customers on a more personal level; (ii) better enable you to track customer reviews and complaints; and (iii) help you to monitor the actions of your competitors.
When used in a professional manner, social networking sites can be valuable tools for reaching potential customers, and maintaining relationships with existing customers. Ms. Valentine noted the following examples of legitimate and professional uses of social networking forums:
- Posting business profiles on LinkedIn, Facebook, Yelp! and other true social networks to create a personality for your company and to promote your brand identity;
- “Tweeting” about innovations, developments and accolades;
- Offering discounts or specials to Facebook “fans” and Twitter “followers”;
- Searching social media websites for posts about your company;
- Posting courteous responses to posts about your company; and
- Maintaining a blog to post information relevant to your potential customer base.
Ms. Valentine stated that franchisors can also use Facebook as a cheaper alternative to the traditional franchisee intranet, and to promote interaction and feedback between and among franchisees and the franchisor’s support team. Likewise, franchisees can use social networking profiles to promote their businesses and give local updates, subject of course the limits imposed by their franchisors on online advertising and use of the franchisors’ trademarks.
Of course, all franchisees’ and employees’ use of social networking media should be carefully monitored to ensure the quality, accuracy and legality of each public statement. Remember, you are using the Internet because it allows information to spread quickly in a recorded audiovisual format—you do not want this to be used against you. Also, if you use Facebook to facilitate franchisee interaction, be sure to place limits on the types of topics discussed to avoid unintended disclosure of your confidential information.
Tracking Customer Opinions
Ms. Valentine also discussed how social networking websites can provide an easy and non-confrontational means for customers to share their opinions about a company’s product or service. By tracking relevant consumer websites and searching social media for references to its brand, products or services, a company can gain valuable insight into its public perception. In addition, Ms. Valentine stated that direct responses to posts – and even to the posters themselves – can go a long way toward building consumer confidence and lasting customer relationships.
Finally, Ms. Valentine noted how social media can also be used to conduct competitive recognizance on a variety of levels. Businesses can track their competitors’ uses of social media to make sure they are not falling behind the curve. They can also track customer complaints against competitors to look for trends and preferences among the body of relevant consumers.
Tracking competitors’ use of social media can also be used to make sure that your trademarks and copyrights are not being misappropriated or infringed. While there are certain competitive rights of “fair use”, enjoining unlawful misuse of your intellectual property is important – and can be essential – to protecting your legal rights. False and damaging posts may also be actionable under the law of defamation or as false advertising, and taking legal action to have such content deleted or rectified can also be essential to protecting the image and value of your brand.
A calculated and concerted social media campaign can be an invaluable tool for your business. Social media provide virtually limitless possibilities for promoting and protecting the interests of your company. By effectively using online social networking tools, you can take steps to ensure that your company maintains a reputation of quality and remains prominently on the front lines in the bid for your customers’ business.