Should small/local businesses bother with social media? Or is local search where it’s at — targeting potential customers in their own cities and towns?
The good news is that small business owners don’t have to choose one or the other. Listed below are eight sites at the intersection of social media and local search, the places where these two roads meet. When you get there, keep in mind that it’s not about sales pitches and spamming; it’s about making real connections with other human beings. Think of it as the online version of going to a chamber of commerce meeting. That’s the first piece of offline marketing advice you were given; here’s how to take the same idea online.
Social Media & Local Search: Where Two Roads Meet
You may think of Flickr as a photo storage/sharing site, but the heart of Flickr is its groups. Flickr has tens of thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands — of groups, and many groups are local in nature. These groups offer a great opportunity to connect with your neighbors, potential customers who might be interested in your products/services.
If you’re a small business owner in Columbus, Ohio, for example, you might want to join this Flickr Meetup – Columbus Ohio group.
This group has 624 members at the moment; no doubt some of those folks are inactive, but it’s still a great way to connect with local residents. These members are uploading local photos, of course, but they’re also talking about local events, local news, and local businesses in the group’s discussion board. Have a look:
Note that all of these discussions are active, with posts within the past two days. And if you owned an independent hotel in Columbus, or maybe a Bed & Breakfast, wouldn’t you like to answer the question from that user who started the any suggestions for a hotel? thread? That’s a gift-wrapped opportunity to start a conversation with a potential customer!
Visit the Flickr Groups section and do a search for your city. You’ll probably find an overwhelming number of matches (there are almost 600 for Columbus, Ohio). Look for groups with recently active discussions — that’s the most important thing. The number of members is important, but not as important as joining an active group where your neighbors are talking.
When you join Facebook, you have to list a hometown. Facebook automatically puts you in a “network” with everyone else in your hometown. That’s the good news. The bad news? It used to be easy to browse through your local network to meet neighbors, but now it’s a chore. Still, Facebook is such a popular site, it’s probably worth the effort to try to make local connections, even with the added hassles.
Click on the “Settings” button at the top of the screen, then choose “Account Settings.” Then click the “Networks” tab. This will tell you how many people are in the local network, and you can click to browse the network membership. Have a look at my Tri-Cities network:
You can use the panel on the right to further sort the members of your network; if you’re looking to connect with adult males (because you own a fishing shop), you can do that.
Like Facebook, you have to list a hometown when you join StumbleUpon. The cool thing is that, on your profile page, your hometown shows up as a clickable link that shows all StumbleUpon users from your hometown. If you lived in Seattle, you’d end up on a page like this:
Note, too, that you can also separate users by gender on StumbleUpon (in case you own a women’s clothing boutique, for example, and only want to connect with women).
Unlike some of the other social media sites listed here, Twitter is all about conversations, making it possibly the best place to reach out and find people in your neighborhood to connect with. Twitter’s advanced search page includes a geo-search option. Give it a city and state (or a zip code), and get back a list of messages (“tweets”) from people in that area. Have a look:
TwitterLocal offers a similar service, but it doesn’t appear to update nearly as quickly as Twitter’s own advanced search.
5. Yahoo Answers
Yahoo Answers can be a productive marketing tool for service-oriented businesses, or for anyone whose knowledge and expertise is a primary selling point. But the site gets so much traffic that it can be overwhelming for a local business. Fortunately, a local business owner can bypass most of that and get right into the Q&A that matters — the stuff about your hometown. If you’re a photographer in Atlanta, you might have something to say about the top question in the Atlanta Q&A section:
To find the local sections of Yahoo Answers, look for the “Local Businesses” category on the home page, and then drill down until you find the right city for you. The drawback here is that only major cities are covered with specific categories.
You’ve probably heard about the benefits of reaching out and starting relationships with bloggers. outside.in is one of two sites I’ll mention that can help you find local bloggers. outside.in is a content aggregator; they show content from both traditional media and blogs.
You can’t contact the local bloggers directly through outside.in; it’s just for locating them. You’ll want to visit the local blogs you find, start reading them regularly, leaving quality comments, and eventually introduce yourself and start that relationship.
You’ll want to research the blogs listed to make sure they’re still active, then follow the steps mentioned above in the outside.in section.
LinkedIn is a great social site for business professionals; it’s not a place to sell products, but you may be able to connect with people looking for your area of expertise. The advanced search page lets you look for other members in your area. Here’s a search for people in the computer repair industry in Los Angeles:
The ability to drill down to find people in your area and industry can help you find new business partners, employees, and other opportunities you may not know of yet.
Many small/local business owners think social media is a waste of time. For some, it would be a waste of time to jump into social media without looking for the local angle. But the sites above are at the intersection of social media and local search. They offer opportunities that almost any small/local business should be interested in: the opportunity to find and connect with potential customers in their hometown.
No matter which social media site fits best, it’s important to get involved not with an eye toward using it for sales pitches and spam; no one likes that. The idea is to connect with local people, not to alienate them. Focus not on what you can get from the community you join, but on what you can give. That’s the best recipe for local-social success.
Your Turn: What other social media sites offer a way to connect with local people?