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August 01, 2010

Cover Story

Results with Social Media?

by Barbara Seale


Click here to order the Direct Selling News issue in which this article appeared.


How could there be a more social industry than direct selling? For us, it’s all about relationships. We treasure, nurture and build our businesses on them. No wonder social media is one of the hottest topics in any gathering of industry professionals.

DSN August issueIt’s not that we’re just chatty or trendy: It’s that we’re businesspeople. We know that our distributors and customers are spending time on the Net, connecting with others, talking about our businesses and helping to form public opinion about the company they represent and the products they purchase.

Simply because we know that our important audiences are congregating in cyberspace, there’s a general consensus among direct sellers that we need to be there, too. But how do we know that the time and money we’re devoting to social media is well spent? How do we measure our return on investment?

To begin with, weknow that a large and growing number of people use social media and spend a lot of time on social media websites. The statistics speak for themselves. Facebook, the largest and fastest-growing social media site, has almost 500 million active users. Half of them log on daily, typically spending almost an hour on the site. Businesses are part of that mix. Facebook hosts more than 3 million active group or business pages, and more than 20 million people become fans of pages each day.

Direct Selling News polled a small and admittedly unscientific sampling of companies, asking them what social media site they’d choose if they could have a single social media presence. To the one, they said Facebook.

Not surprising, considering the site’s demographics. It’s the only major social media site that’s attracting an audience whose median age is actually increasing. According to a study performed by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the age of the site’s users averages 33, up from 26 in May 2008. Time magazine says that 28 percent of the site’s users are older than 34. The median age of a Twitter user is 31. That’s remained stable over the last year. MySpace participants have a median age of just 26, down from 27 in May 2008, and the median age for LinkedIn is now 39, down from 40. Social media helps bridge the gaps among baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials.

Social Media

Set Aside Selling, Think Service

Give first. That’s the advice social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk gives direct sellers who want to be successful with social media.

The creator of WineLibraryTV.com has more than 90,000 daily followers of his online TV program where he reviews wines and educates wine lovers. He also has 850,000 followers on Twitter and a 10-book deal with HarperStudio. He provides consulting advice on social media through his company, Vayner Media.

Vaynerchuk’s successful business life started when he took over his parents’ wine business, then called Shoppers Discount Liquors. As a kid, he kept telling his father, “Dad, we gotta change the name!” Dad didn’t listen, but when Vaynerchuk took over the business, he morphed it into an Internet phenomenon. The visionary businessman registered the name winelibrary.com in 1997. In 10 years it had grown into a $70 million company. Vaynerchuk recognized right away that he could use his personal charisma through Internet video. So instead of pitching pinot, he invited guests to help him taste wines, and he showed viewers how to develop their palates. He gave first. And he didn’t care whether it was pretty.

“I wanted to bang it out in one take,” he says, snapping his fingers. “If I spilled the wine, if a fly came into the screen, if my phone rang—all good, natural and authentic. It was the 15 hours after the video aired that were important, which was when I went into the [Wine Spectator, Robert Parker, Wine Enthusiast] forums, went to wine blogs, went into the community, became part of the community. It was brand building. I always say content is king, but marketing is the queen, and she runs the household.”

He emphasizes that to have good content, he had to know his business. Direct sellers have that covered. He says that to gain credibility in social media requires sweat equity—putting in the time to interact with others online. And he emphasizes that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

He says that social media efforts may not yield significant results for 18 months, but for him, that’s OK.

“Social media’s really customer-service driven,” he says. “It’s about building relationships. If you’re not allocating funds and personnel to this space, you’re being grossly negligent. This is not a fad. This is not a theory. It is proven time and time again.” One of Vaynerchuk’s clients, the National Hockey League, saw viewership increase for its New Year’s Eve NHL classic, merchandise sales explode, and signups swell for their paid Internet-based home game center—all because of the NHL’s social media activities.

Vaynerchuk expects the effect to be amplified, as phones, TV and Internet converge. He says that with no gatekeepers, everything changes. Stop thinking of selling; start thinking of building relationships and improving customer service.

“Think of business as a steak,” he says. “I think that most people in this world think of social media as some pepper. I think of social media as the actual steak, and I think that what I’m selling is salt. Those nuances of social media really define to me the consumer-business relationship. I think social media is the first time brands can have a pulse and a face and a relationship with the actual consumer.”

Return on Relationship

We know the numbers are there. But the question remains: How do we know we’re doing it right? The companies who participated in this article use a variety of Web metrics to track participation on their sites. They know how many fans and followers they have and how fast those numbers are growing, for example. But they’ve heard the message of the professional social media gurus. Social media isn’t about sales; it’s about relationships and service.

“How to measure ROI is the million-dollar question in the social media world,” says Nikken Marketing Manager Jeanne Columna. “There’s no easy answer. Ultimately, there needs to be some sort of measurable ROI on it, but right now we’re using enthusiasm, interaction and the relationships being built. That’s what social media is all about.”

Nikken’s first foray into social media was through a blog it started about a year ago. That was followed by a Facebook event page that supported its then-upcoming convention. Then they expanded to a Nikken Facebook fan page and recently launched a corporate YouTube channel and a science blog. They’re considering the launch of a business-building blog.

“We’re getting a lot of positive feedback and enthusiasm, and our fan base is increasing daily by leaps and bounds,” Columna says. “We haven’t done anything to promote our social media efforts in any newsletters or other communications to date. People just find it and use it. It’s all been viral.”
Even so, she says that enthusiasm and participation come from both consultants as well as from people who have just stumbled across the company’s social media sites. For example, a resident of the Netherlands recently visited the company’s Facebook page and asked how to buy Nikken products. Because the company paid attention and replied to the poster, they gained a customer.

Spearheaded by company President Anne Butler, PartyLite first experimented with social media just last year. A survey showed them that their consultants were already familiar with Facebook, though they weren’t particularly active. So PartyLite started methodically, carefully designing a Facebook fan page that specifically supported the company’s upcoming national conference. Then they sent e-mail to consultants explaining exactly how to log on to the Facebook fan page and asked them to share stories that reflected the conference theme: Life in a Whole New Light.

“We asked them to share photos and tell us how PartyLite has helped them have a whole new life,” says Director of Communications Joyce Elven. “It was overwhelming! I think that because we told them how, we had over 4,000 consultants telling their stories and putting up photos. We increased registration for the conference, branded the meeting and created its heart. It really brought the theme of the conference alive.” The company captured the energy and feeling of the participation, using posts and pictures from the fan site throughout the conference.

A Bigger Net

Vemma is also a recent member of the social media community. Founder and CEO BK Boreyko’s reasoning behind getting involved is simply that he wanted to be able to “cast the biggest net possible.” So he consulted with social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk (see sidebar, “Set Aside Selling, Think Service,” for more on Vaynerchuk), who told him in blunt language that his website wasn’t helping his efforts. Within a few weeks, the company website was social-media enabled, and Vemma’s brand partners—its term for its distributors—had personal websites that were integrated with Facebook and Twitter. In addition, they each have a free blog that automatically sends updates to their Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

Boreyko hired a full-time staff member to concentrate on social media, setting a modest initial goal to have 10,000 fans on Vemma’s Facebook fan page. He also now has a video blog he updates every week.

He now says, “Social media is network marketing on steroids. It’s what we do—talk, communicate and tell stories. Social media gives you a vehicle to do that on a worldwide platform.” He adds, “We now have more than 10,000 friends on Facebook. That’s very tangible evidence that people want to be listened to and that they communicate in this space. It’s validation that we’re onto something. We’re just getting started.”

Boreyko believes that social media will change the way direct sellers market themselves. He says that the industry will soon prioritize social media over print tools.

“I don’t even think people are trying to monetize social media,” he says when asked about how Vemma measures its social media ROI. “If they are, they’re crazy. You can’t monetize it. You need to understand that if you’re in the people business, you have to be where the people are. What’s the ROI of shaking someone’s hand and being nice to them when you meet them at a cocktail party?”

Tracking Tools

ROI may be hard to measure, but most companies do find ways to measure effectiveness. At Stampin’ Up! Web Marketing Manager Chad Williams employs a variety of tracking tools and metrics to understand whether the company’s social media efforts are effective.

“Web analytics give us an idea of how many visitors are leaving our social spaces and engaging on our branded Web content,” he says. “From there we track how many users make purchases, contact demonstrators, or any other predetermined call to action. We also measure the growth and reach of our social media efforts with tools like Facebook Insights, YouTube Insight, Twitter Search, Google Trends and others.”

He says that the company focuses on different audiences in different spaces, so they have different goals for each.

“Our Twitter efforts are aimed primarily at demonstrators, with an emphasis on shareable posts that can be re-tweeted or re-used by demonstrators in their own spaces,” Williams says. “Facebook and You Tube are more general-audience spaces where we focus on communicating our brand, our products and our opportunities to the world.”

USANA focuses its social media efforts on thee platforms: Blogger, Facebook and Twitter. Their goals are just as specific. They try to generate interaction, empower advocates and reach an extended community.

“Comments on blogs, comments and likes on Facebook, and re-tweets on Twitter all signify increased engagement,” says Dan Macuga, USANA’s Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations. “We also have conversations at our events with our associates and customers to gauge their involvement and interest in our ongoing social media efforts. We aim to create an environment where our distributors and others are willing to provide information, answer questions and promote the USANA brand, which many are doing effectively.” Macuga adds, “We strive to provide an outlet for conversations to take place. We are seeing that the community is engaging in these conversations and is helping to promote the USANA message throughout its various social networks.”

Fans and followers flock to USANA social media outlets because the company offers content that isn’t found anywhere else—anything from teasing a new product launch to special coverage of almost 100 USANA-sponsored athletes at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. On Fridays, the company posts video productions on a special website called What’s Up, USANA? They call them Fun Friday Videos. Recent ones taste- tested recipes using USANA products that were submitted  by their Facebook fans (http://bit.ly/FunFri). In another, they dispatched their social media team to sleuth out rumors on a new product (http:// bit. ly/ aSDZ4C).

The video that “leaked” the news of a new product generated tremendous traffic on the blog and excitement throughout the field.

“It helped us emphasize the point that if you want to be in the know, you need to follow the What’s Up, USANA? blog and our other social media sites,” Macuga says.

Blogging for Business

Participation is the goal for all the social media sites at The Southwestern Company. Its college-student salesforce is a natural for social media.

“We feel the most effective when we generate conversation, elicit a response, evoke emotion or receive feedback from a specific social initiative,” says Director of  Communications Trey Campbell. “We just want to know that people are receiving our message and have something to say about it. That makes us happy. It also keeps Southwestern Company out there and relevant.”

Southwestern reaches its social media participants in a variety of ways—tweets, messages on their “wall,” text messages or RSS feeds. It has a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, You Tube and Vimeo, but it counts the launch of its six blogs as its most successful social media experience so far.
“In an effort to communicate with specific audiences and engage in search-engine optimization under specific search terms, we felt blogs represented a great opportunity to engage in two-way communication to reach our diverse audiences,” Campbell says.

Southwestern has a regular, growing audience who reads its corporate, alumni and sales blogs. The company even has one for Career Service officials on the campuses where it recruits the students who make up its salesforce. The award-winning blogs have helped fuel the company’s PR and education initiatives by educating consumers on topics such as how not to be scammed by traveling door-to-door sales crews; safety tips on when to open the door to salespersons; and even the basics of direct selling. Blogs targeted to the salesforce provide advice on important basics like dealing with rejection.

No matter whether they measure their social media results through statistics or sizzle, direct sellers are sold on social media. Like Boreyko, PartyLite’s Elven sees it as the future.

“What I’ve learned is that inbound marketing is what’s now,” she says. “The outbound marketing paradigm is no longer how direct selling or any other industry can succeed totally. You want to be a magnet to bring people to you rather than to shout at them through a megaphone. And now whole new opportunities are opening up with location-based marketing, like Foursquare. We’re just starting.”

Whether direct sellers are teetering on the proverbial precipice or swimming safely in the social media waters, one thing is for certain: The waters are deep, and the seas are expanding. Almost daily, developers conjure up ingenious ways to help us reach prospective distributors and customers. Just as quickly, new ways to measure our effectiveness are emerging. But whether our social media platforms reach thousands with our brand message or a single person who needs our assistance, social media is relevant for direct sellers, so we need to manage it well. After all, social media, like direct selling, is all about relationships.