Is there a place for social media in a boring business?

boring business

By Mark Schaefer

This is a question that seems to pop up a lot. Is there a place for social media in a “boring” business like insurance, plumbing, or trucking?

While I do believe nearly any business can benefit from some social media presence, we do need to take a rational look as to whether it should really be a priority in the marketing mix for a “boring” business.

Are you a conversational business?

Let’s re-frame this word “boring” and put it this way: “Do people normally talk about you over the dinner table or at a party?” If the answer is “yes,” then social media should probably be a top priority for you. If it’s no … well, look at your budget options carefully to see where social media might fit in.

There have been a number of studies out there about the “conversationability” of a business and the connection to social media success. Not surprisingly, there is a hierarchy of conversationability — more remarkable products like sports teams and Hollywood movies are talked about twice as much less remarkable brands like banks and over-the-counter medicine.

In a study of organic Facebook reach conducted by AgoraPulse, the company found that across 8,000 companies, there was definitely a pecking order of conversationability. Organic reach is the content that is naturally connecting to customers without any promotion. Here is a list of the industry categories with the highest organic reach:

  1. Amateur sports teams
  2. Farming/agriculture
  3. Fashion designer
  4. Professional athletes
  5. Music industry
  6. Building products
  7. Professional sports team
  8. Photographers
  9. Zoos and animal-related businesses
  10. Television programs

And here are the industries with the lowest Facebook organic reach:

  1. Appliances
  2. Books
  3. Telecommunications
  4. Household supplies
  5. Tools and equipment
  6. Phone/tablet
  7. Chef
  8. Musical instruments
  9. Industrials
  10. Transportation and freight

There is an implicit hierarchy of conversation popularity across industries. If you are in sports, entertainment, or any of the other industries in the first list, there is an implied, fervent fascination with your content. There is something that people find naturally remarkable about you that gets rewarded with content transmission. If you’re in the second list or somewhere in between, you have less of an organic opportunity for social sharing … not necessarily because of the job you’re doing with your content, but because your products just aren’t naturally conversational.

Are you conversational … or could you be?

There is another option. If you’re in an industry with relatively low organic reach, can you become remarkable? It doesn’t come easily or cheaply, but it is possible, as evidenced by the series of “Will It Blend?” videos produced by BlendTec blenders. A blender isn’t the most remarkable product, but the brand made it so through its wacky challenge … ripping apart the most unusual things (golf balls, an Apple watch) in its powerful blender.

One of my favorite examples of a company overcoming a low place on the remarkability continuum is the Chipotle restaurant chain, which sells burritos and tacos—nearly commodity products in the food business.

Chipotle began producing two-minute animated mini-movies telling a story of their restaurant as an oasis of natural goodness in an otherwise bleak and dystopian world of processed food. The first episode, a clay animation video with a soundtrack of Willie Nelson singing a Coldplay song, was extraordinarily popular with Chipotle’s youthful audience and garnered nearly 9 million views in a year. The next year, the company went a step further by creating a free smartphone game to go with a new video. It had 4 million views in the first week.

Reality check: All this was created to sell burritos. It wasn’t easy to become a conversational brand. It wasn’t cheap either. But it worked, and Chipotle’s stock and market share soared. That’s the nice thing about remarkability: You can apply it to almost anything.

The key to finding your remarkability is to think about what makes you surprising, interesting, or novel. In my book Social Media ExplainedI suggest that marketing strategy needs to begin by finishing this sentence: “Only we …” That’s a tough task, but it’s the essential path to discover your remarkability.

In the case of Chipotle, the “only we” was creating a story of health and sustainability, a story far bigger than mere burritos and tacos. They broke a pattern of what people expected from fast food.

But wait … there’s more

At this point, you might be thinking, “My business is boring and unremarkable and I’m not about to be a Blend-Tec or Chiplotle. Why would I participate in social media?”

There are a lot of reasons, and here are a few:

Public relations – It’s likely that some aspect of social media has to be incorporated into any plan for media relations, crisis planning, even planning and community relations.

Word of mouth advocacy – Social media opens up an entirely new way of identifying, and nurturing powerful online advocates for your brand.

Cost savings – Social media represents an extremely cost-effective communication channel.  Most research shows that in terms of many traditional measures, the results are as good, or better, than paid advertising. There are many opportunities to leverage existing content and marketing materials across vast new audiences.

Customer service – You may not have a choice about this really. Social media has become a very popular way to complain about poor products and services.  It’s the new 800 number. Are you going to answer the call?

HR and recruiting – Social media, and particularly LinkedIn, has transformed the human resources function. One professional told me that a candidate’s “social media footprint” was more important today than a resume! Whether you are trying to find talent or be found, social media is a critical piece of the puzzle.

Internal process improvement – Tapping into the free tools and information on the web can help unleash employee productivity, collaboration, and problem-solving.

Lead generation — Even setting up a simple Twitter search can help you find customers looking for your products and services … even if you’re boring.

Reputation management – The largest brands have social media “war rooms” set up so they can monitor conversations and sentiment about their products and brands in real-time, at any spot in the world. Today, you need to be tuned-in to the conversations and respond quickly or risk problems going viral.

Research and development – An active customer community can be a goldmine of new ideas, and suggestions for products and innovations.

Search — Google is now showing tweets more prominently is search results. And you are just as likely to be discovered via your LinkedIn profile, blog post or video than a website. An entire generation is finding businesses and services through Facebook search.

Social proof — In a world of overwhelming information density, we may look to clues from others to make a decision. How many positive reviews do you have? How many Likes or followers to you have? It might sound weird but people make decisions to connect to a company based on these badges of social proof (there is an entire chapter ont the connection between social proof and content success in my book The Content Code).

The Trade Show Dilemma — Have you ever had to sit at a booth during a large industry trade show? Why did you do it? Because if we weren’t there, people would think something was wrong. We would be ostentatiously absent. In this day and age, not being on Facebook or Twitter sends the same message. It shows you “don’t get it.”

The Net Generation – Your next pool of employees, customers, and competitors – prefer to use the social web over any other form of communication.  You might enjoy reading a paper copy of The Wall Street Journal each morning, or even looking at an online version of your favorite news site.  Nearly half of Americans under the age of 21 cite Facebook as their primary source of news. The social web is where a generation is going to connect, learn, and discover. Ignore this at your peril!

So the short answer is “yes.” There is a place for social media, even in a boring business, but your “conversationability” may influence how much effort you put into it. Comments?

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Tim Heffernan.

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