Get yourself connected


Forget PR stunts; there are many other ways to reach your customer, through social media personal contacts and free publicity, writes OLIVE KEOGH

CREATING A GOOD product or service is only half the battle in achieving commercial success. The other half is getting that product or service noticed.

Few SMEs have the budget to splash out on big publicity campaigns, and some deliberately decide to use their resources for other areas. The arrival of the internet and social networks have been a godsend to small business, making reaching customers both cheap and easy. But Ciarán Ó Gaora, founder of the brand and communications studio Zero-G, advises companies to stop and think before taking an attention-seeking plunge.

“A company will certainly get noticed by dressing someone in a pink jumpsuit covered with company logos and getting them to base jump from Liberty Hall,” he says. “But then what? What is that actually saying about your company, and where do you take it from there?

“Start-ups and SMEs are often very taskoriented, and they lose sight of the vision – what it is that makes them special or different.

“They need to start the brand development process by being very clear about the benefits of what they offer. In other words, developing a strong message that’s going to be effective when they start getting noticed. If a company is clear about this, it is much easier for other people to pass on that information and this creates a domino effect. The next step is to decide what kind of reputation they want in the marketplace. The third is to identify by whom they need to get noticed and how they can use existing networks and relationships to achieve this.”

Using professionals to develop a brand costs money, but Ó Gaora says a budget of between €5,000 and €8,000 would be enough to start the process.

Ian Lucey is the founder of cloud computing and online payments company Lucey Technology. Lucey says “using and abusing industry contacts” and joining the LinkedIn business contacts network have proved the most effective way of promoting his young company. “LinkedIn is a really good way to announce yourself to your peers in a non-threatening way,” he says.

“We also spent a few bob on launch parties and other PR, but this wasn’t as effective as working our contacts. I think there is an element of vanity about getting known to the general public. In reality most companies really only need to be known by their potential customer base. My advice is go to where you will find likely customers. For example, conferences and industry events. You can waste a lot of time with online marketing and message boards and the likes of Twitter when you’d be far better off just telling someone about your business.”

Suzanne Kingston and Aedan Ryan started the Cork-based Puddleducks clothing company in 2005. The business, which started out supplying outdoor and waterproof clothing for kids, has grown steadily and expanded into ladies’ and gents’ outdoor clothing. The couple had limited resources starting out and have spent almost nothing on conventional publicity or advertising. Instead they relied on social media, personal contacts, word of mouth and spotting good (free) publicity opportunities.

“If you have contacts use them and if you are offered something for free, take it,” says Suzanne Kingston. “Our initial publicity was through someone we knew who got us a mention in The Irish Times. The phone didn’t stop ringing all day. This led to interest by other publications. Last summer (when it never stopped raining) we sent a fun photo featuring our product to The Irish Times and they used it. This really boosted summer interest in our company.”

For those who opt for promotion through social media the advice from professionals in the field is to keep the content fresh. They also point out that social networkers expect interaction and this demands an ongoing time commitment.

“People often make the mistake of thinking social media is about technology or computers or the internet. It’s not. It’s about people. It is nothing more than another [way] of talking to people,” says Eoin Kennedy of Slattery Communications, who is also a board member of the Irish Internet Association.

“Instant gratification is a key aspect of social media and there is an expectation that people will get an almost immediate response. The key to making it work for you is to decide on a schedule and stick to it. If you commit to a certain response time, then meet it. If blog posts are once every two weeks this is better than a blast of every day followed by a long absence.

“The key question to ask before embarking on social networking is: Why am I doing this? It doesn’t suit all situations, yet people feel railroaded into getting involved in this [new thing] that everyone’s talking about.”

Case study: On your bike

EVERY WEEK, between 1,800 and 2,500 cycling enthusiasts read Barry Meehan’s blog on his company’s Worldwide Cycles website. Meehan set up the Clonmel-based specialist bike shop with Irish racing ace, Ray Clarke, 11 years ago and began using social networking to promote the business just over four years ago.

“The blog has a significant following now. It is of the most benefit to the business in terms of generating sales,” Meehan says. “The business has been growing steadily year on year and I’d estimate that the blog has been directly responsible for around 20 per cent of that growth.

“When people walk into the shop they already know about us from the blog. They know the events we’ve been involved in and, if they’ve been there too, that immediately creates a genuine rapport. They know we share their enthusiasm for the sport and that, as active bikers ourselves, we will give them informed advice.

“We use the blog and Twitter and Facebook to share our passion for cycling with like-minded people. This allows us to build relationships with potential customers. There is a lot of chat and interaction with people when they come into the shop because they feel they already know us personally. People from all over Ireland come to our shop.”

Meehan says it is very easy to get sucked into spending a lot of time on social media. “I put a limit on the amount of time I allocate to it now,” he says.

“I will check Twitter a couple of times a day and do the blog and Facebook once a week. That takes about two and a half hours but it would be easy to end up spending three or four hours a day on it. Despite the recession we have never been busier in the shop so I don’t have that kind of time to spend.”

He says he is also wary of the blog getting stale, so during the summer months he keeps it shorter and comes up with fresh ideas for September.

“As a rule we tend not to use social media to directly promote products,” Meehan says. “The feedback I get is that people get turned off if someone is just using it to push products and to advertise. If there’s a particular bike that’s special in some way, or maybe one that’s very good value, then I might Twitter about that, but generally I use Facebook to promote the blog rather than products and Twitter to talk about the events we’re involved in.”

Meehan says the company does not do traditional advertising and is cautious about its spending on internet advertising.

“We were advertising on one site and it was costing us around €1,300 a year. But, from what we could see, we were generating more hits from our own blog which was costing us nothing,” he says.

Tried and tested: how to get noticed

– Clearly identify your USP and target audience

– Network and use existing contacts to build new relationships

– Attend conferences and seminars to meet people and don’t be shy about offering your business card

– Offer yourself as an authority in your field to local media

– If something happens in the news that’s relevant to you, use it to promote your business

– Offer to speak at events where you can promote your business

– Join a business or professional organisation

– If your business is locally based support community events

– Do a Twitter trial run, or try another social network, to see if it suits

– Start a blog on your website

– If money is tight use PR or marketing professionals on a project basis to help promote specific aspects of your business