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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Social Media Series: Karin Hermans on Bridging New & Old

Karin Hermans does an amazing job bridging new & old through her wood flooring business in the UK - Wood You Like - and her several blogs which she refers to as "dynamic websites."

[Note: this post also falls into the "Flooring It Differently" category.]

I first 'met' Karin through the Z list - dreamed up by Mack Collier - as we both had a connection to flooring and a strong interest in this amazingly social platform. I have since been 'floored' to realize what Karin has created via her dynamic websites and how, through her social explorations, she has ventured into webmarketing and blog workshops.

Karin is the author of The Kiss Business, a business novel about "the trials and tribulation of two 'foreigners' (Dutch) starting a retail business in Kent UK" and of the Kiss2 blog. 'Kiss' BTW refers to "Keep It Simple Sweetheart, specially in business," a principle at the heart of everything Karin gets involved in.

C.B.: Karin, how/why did you get involved in social media?

Karin: Would you believe necessity? In June 03 both my partner and I were made redundant. We’d moved from The Netherlands to the UK especially for this job/adventure and when this went pear-shaped we had to decide: going back ‘home’ or going it alone? We choose for the latter and started on a shoe-string. A friendly web wizard taught me the basics of web design and SEO. During my keyword research I got involved with two DIY-forums (early form of Social Media Marketing?) and started answering questions about wooden flooring there.

The same web wizard suggested we add a blog to our ‘static' website, a free one first (blogger) but very quickly I switched to Typepad. Then after I’d published my debut business novel others suggested I should keep writing about practical business matters, which resulted in The Kiss Business too (2) blog. I remember vividly the ‘hype’ around the Z-list (end 2006), which brought me in contact with many other, mostly USA based bloggers. That led to dipping my toe in other SMM by reading and discussing about it on their blogs etc.

AWeber (does that count as SMM?) is a completely different story, one that our good friend and business consultant Richard C brought to my attention. Now that’s what I would call a potent media for small businesses. Side note in regards of my friend; after I bullied him into blogging the experience of teaching the blog benefits to others led to organising 1-2-1 blog-workshops and my “second” career into web marketing was born. (With its own blog of course, 1 Plus 1 Makes 3)

C.B.: What do you like most about social media?

Karin: The accessibility of so many Social Media Marketing tools for small businesses, it surely levels the playing field with the ‘big’ companies out there. Still think small businesses have an advantage over big corporations here. Especially retailers – like us – in a niche market.

Our interactive and dynamic website (aka blog) enables us to fine-tune the information on our main ‘static’ site and leaflets/wood guides. Some of the Q & A’s on the blog turn into new posts – the ‘client’ in fact contributes to our growing content – plus when compiling those articles we can easily produce “How To” guides: digital products we also sell. Because we are a specialised retailer – a two man/woman band – we can dedicate time to educate prospects/clients through our website, blogs, Q&A‘s through AWeber etc. LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are new areas for our business to venture in, slowly.

What I also love about Social Media is from a learning point of view for business owners. Once you get involved in SMM – dipping your toes in, never jump right in! – you can encounter so many other business owners/managers who are all so willing to share what they’ve learned, how they use SMM, etc. Without blog-encounters, Facebook and LinkedIn friends all over the world I would not have learnt so much in so short a time as I have over the last 2 – 3 years. And it reflects in the success of our business I like to think – and my good friend /accountant /consultant is always eager and the first to confirm this.

C.B.: What do you like least about social media?

Karin: Hypes! I like to look from the side-line for a while to ponder if, how and when a new tool or SMM platform can work for our business. Although we are still IMHO one of the first brick & mortar retailers who have utilised many SMM tools we are carefully to test the waters first on a small scale. It took a lot of hard work and time to grow from a ‘retailer’ working from home in the first two years into our, still very small, showroom retailer with a rather large in comparison web presence.

So we read and learn, test and measure and then decide yes or no instead of following every new hype that comes along. I must confess you can pick up little tricks from new tools/fads even if you don’t implement the whole thing.

A true pet-hate of mine is bloggers who don’t seem to care about their readers and can’t be bothered to reply or even acknowledge those who take the time and trouble to comment on their posts.

C.B.: How have you used social media to promote your business?

Karin: Blogs and forums mainly. Any which way we can. Like with so many other forms of promotion it takes time. But if you are willing to invest that time it brings in so many rewards! I’ve lost track of number of topics on the two DIY-forums that start with “Wood You Like, help!” or “Question for Wood You Like”. That didn’t happen overnight, it took time and the willingness from our side to give many answers freely without linking to our own website in every reply we posted. Now even trade magazines are starting to mention our online wood guides and our client base counts many DIY-ers from the forums.

We deal with small independent manufacturers, most are based in our home country The Netherlands, and all have subscribed to our newsletter. They read and see every month how we promote their products by using SMM – so they make a point of it releasing news to us very quickly as if we are a marketing/PR bureau instead of a small specialised client selling their products. ;-)

I love social media as a very direct and an almost intuitive interactive way to communicate with prospects/clients. Marketing becomes almost an afterthought sometimes, but of course it works hand in hand.

C.B.: What 5 suggestions do you have for companies to implement so they can more effectively bridge old media with new media and connect with end users?

1. Don’t be afraid to give. When we first started answering questions on the DIY-forums and allowing web visitors to ask questions on our own blog competitors thought we were crazy: you don’t give away free advice up front, only when the product is bought. Otherwise they use your information and buy somewhere else cheaper. It really doesn’t work this way. Of course there are those who do just that, but the amount of credibility you build up by giving first is tremendous. It’s the old reciprocation effect – as my friend Richard C always likes to point out to me.

2. Shrink-wrap your brain. There is a lot of information out there on the WWW, but turning info into usable knowledge gives you the edge. Everyone has manuals, white-papers etc about their own specialised field. It’s very easy to become a specialist. Make that knowledge available online, with or without a price-tag. People are willing to pay for those things that will save them loads of ‘search and compile’ time. And because you make it available you are seen as The Expert. And everyone wants to do business with The Expert.

3. Become independent from your web designer or IT department where web presence is concerned. Sounds harsh, but IT people are not marketing people – not in most cases. Fancy websites are great to see and might bring the designer many awards, but when your web visitors can’t find his way around your site he will leave – awards or not. Simple lay-out, easy navigation and interesting content will win the heart of your web visitor. I love the blog platform Typepad, it is not a freebie like WordPress can be, but the features of Typepad are so easy to use that even the most non-digital business owner can create and manage his/her own ‘blog-site’. I’ve got some examples on my port-folio page on the 1 Plus 1 Makes 3 blog. Traders mostly – a plumber, a bathroom shop and a water softener specialist. Hands on owners, but by using Typepad as their ‘website’ software all are getting more and more results from their dynamic website. Scoring higher and higher on google’s search engine results without having to pay over the odds or having to wait until their web designer has finally understood what they mean.

4. Implement an autoresponder email marketing tool – like AWeber - on your web or blog site. Because you have interesting and useful content your web visitor could very likely want to hear/learn more. Capture his name and email address with or without the promise of a small gift and continue your interesting content through opt-in email marketing. Build your relationship one message at a time. We had to create a whole new ‘customer-type’ in our admin system: “AWeber-clients” (first contact through one of our AWeber lists/campaigns) and it is one of the quickest growing client types we have.

5. Coming back to giving: learn from others by reading other blogs about SMM and if you think you can contribute to the conversation do so in the comment box. This way the blog-owner gets to know you, and all his/her readers will too. Don’t start linking to your own site or blog in the first every comment you make, give first – freely. If your comments are relevant they will come and check out your blog on their own account. Then your own ‘community’ will grow. IMHO there is no difference in email spamming or blog spamming – first make sure the receiver wants to hear from you. As with everything this too will take time, but see it as an investment over long term. Short term never worked, not in the old days and not in these new days.

C.B.: Any other thoughts to share about effectiveness of social media in forging stronger relationships with customers?

Karin: Treat them with respect; deliver what you promise and more. There is no difference between face to face meetings with clients and interactive online “meetings”: deliver what you promise.

Don’t give up within one month of trying Social Media Marketing. The Internet seems to be working on ‘the fast lane’ but nothing could be further from the truth in regards of establishing a long term relationship with your customers. To build a strong and long lasting relationship you have to give your customer the time to recognise/experience you do take away all his/her doubts about doing business with you. That doesn’t happen in one single message, ad or banner. It didn’t in the old days; it doesn’t in these new days. Marketing might have changed its tools; the effect on relationships is still the same.

Thank you, Karin!

Comments? Reactions? Feedback?

What about Karin's approach of "read and learn, test and measure and then decide yes or no instead of following every new hype?" Any reactions or advice relating to Karin's experience with autoresponder email marketing tools?

I particularly like Karin's advice about being committed to social media marketing for the long haul so as to establish a credible long-term relationship with customers. And I love the notion of 'shrink-wrapping your brain.'

For additional insights from participants in the Social Media Series: Bridging New & Old please visit The Entire Bridging New & Old Social Media Series.

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