Launch Slideshow

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It’s since become a famous story: James Andrews stepped off a plane in Memphis to do a presentation for FedEx on behalf of Ketchum, the high-end PR firm where he was a vice president. Shortly after landing, he tweeted the following:

“True confession but I’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say, ‘I would die if I had to live here!’”

In most cases, Twitter users would shrug off this post. However, on that fateful day in January 2009, the anti-Memphis sentiment caught the eye of a FedEx employee who angrily emailed it to the company’s upper management. Ironically, Andrews, who was then vice president of Ketchum’s Interactive Communications division, was in town to talk with FedEx’s communications staff about using social media.

The tweet almost cost Kechum a large account, and triggered a round of corporate email exchanges, irate memos, abject apologies and public humiliation. The controversy also sparked public debate about the role of Twitter and how Andrews handled himself.

Yet amidst all the noise and criticism was a valuable takeaway: Social media is a very powerful tool.

“Tweeting while angry can have long-term negative consequences for any business,” says Brian Moran, CEO of Brian Moran & Associates, a Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J.-based consulting firm.

“However, that’s not a reason to abandon social media as a viable platform for growing your business, it simply reinforces the need to have a solid plan in place.”

Moran has been educating small businesses on the importance of social media for five years. During that time, he has encountered two breeds of owners: those who understand the strength of the free marketing tool and those who don’t. For the latter cases, it always boiled down to the business’s operational plan, or as he refers to it, the “GPS system.”

“Owners who struggle and can’t find the ROI don’t have a business plan that includes social media or a strategic goal and don’t see the benefit of replacing traditional communication,” he explains. “But today, it’s not whether or not you should use Twitter but how quickly you can get on board.”

In the first part of this Twitter guide for pool and spa professionals, “Bird on a Wire” (April 26, 2013), we explained the basics of the social networking site. Here, Moran and other experts offer more advanced ideas on the ways industry members can capitalize on Twitter to achieve their professional goals.

Be your brand

It’s a fairly common practice. A swimming pool or spa company creates a Twitter account and begins tweeting about in-store sales, free water tests or buying a hot tub.

This is not the best practice.

“You can supplement with [promotional material] but you have to first build awareness of who you are and what you do,” says Rieva Lesonsky, former editorial director of Entrepreneur and CEO of GrowBiz Media. “Why would I buy from you if I never heard of you? People want to feel comfortable with whom they do business.”

Twitter is not about the hard sell, explains Moran. Instead, it’s a means to an end, a road one takes on the figurative GPS map to reach the ultimate objective.

Before getting there, the business owner must establish trust and become known in the Twitterverse as a swimming pool or hot tub expert. This expertise will later translate to greater online exposure. To do so, a user needs to create and promote his or her brand (not the products or service being sold), or in the case of Twitter, a voice.

In fact, it’s one of the three bedrocks of using social media, according to author and SmallBizTechnology.com CEO Ramon Ray.

The self-proclaimed technology evangelist says he has done so for himself by following some simple, yet effective, guidelines.

Engagement is at the top of Ray’s list and can be accomplished by sharing fun, interesting content.

“If you see a cool pool, take a picture and tweet it,” he suggests. “Spontaneity should not be ignored.”

It doesn’t stop there. Content worthy of sharing runs the gamut, from BBQ recipes and safety tips to tweeting links of curated stories from news sources and even retweeting other users’ posts.

The most valuable information will pertain directly to pools or spas, however. Many industry members come from families who have worked in the industry since its inception. Ray encourages these individuals to tap into that knowledge base and share their expertise with the world.

Think back to the countless questions customers have asked over the years, and tweet a useful tip each day, for example. Then supplement these tweets with other discussion points. This expertise will transition from the literal field to the digital one, positioning a company as a thought leader and a conduit of information about all things pool and spa.

“Use specific keywords, eye-catching ideas and funny stories,” Ray says. “Then when someone like a USA Today writer works on an article about summer fun and searches Twitter, [your tweet is] going to be there.”

Establish a network

Another effective way to build a brand is to create a network of individuals interested in swimming pools and hot tubs. Asking customers and colleagues for Twitter handles is now recommended, but finding people who are talking about the specialty market on Twitter is equally effective.

Search.twitter.com  offers a place to seek out conversations regarding specific topics and can even be drilled down to an exact location. Ray suggests using the tool regularly to grow a network. For example, one can search daily or weekly for #hottub and #saltlakecity to connect with users interested in a particular product in that region. Then, he says to expand and refine that search to broaden the reach.

The objective is to converse with Twitter users who have an interest in discussing or purchasing pools, spas and related products. Moreover, if an individual isn’t yet a pool owner or lives out of the area, a professional can still offer tips that will likely elevate the expert’s status, prompting more followers, inquiries and organic growth.

“What you have done is taken all the needles in this ginormous haystack and pulled them out and put them into your account with no outside noise. Maybe it’s only 150 people, but everybody is involved in pools and spas in some way,” adds Moran.

Start a chat

Another way to exchange information and solidify one’s standing as an expert is to host open chats. Once a user establishes a network on Twitter, open chats present an opportunity to directly engage followers in conversations, an approach Lesonsky and Ray strongly encourage.

Simply put, a Twitter chat is a way to call followers together at a specific time and day to discuss a pre-determined subject by way of tweets. The host establishes a hashtag that signifies the topic and announces the “event” on Twitter and other social media platforms. A host even can send out invitations via email and promote the chat on his or her business website as a way to encourage a greater audience.

Chats offer many benefits, says Lesonsky, including the opportunity to build community, exchange ideas, connect with industry peers and educate consumers.

The chats are conducted in a “private” area using a service such as TwebEvent or oneQube as a way to filter out all other tweets that would typically appear on a feed. During the session, only tweets matching the desired hashtag will be shown on screen. However, all tweets sent during a chat are public and also will show up on the user’s feed to be read by his or her followers. During the actual chat session, all those who participate include the special hashtag for the topic at the end of each tweet to join the conversation and keep the posts organized for future searches on Twitter. Some services automatically will generate that hashtag.

Many hosts invite special guests to participate and use that individual’s knowledge as a guide for the chat’s topic. In the case of the pool and spa industry, the guest may be a maker of a new product, or a pool and spa service expert, for example.

“You can become known as the twitter pool expert,” Lesonsky says. “It’s all about exposing your brand and expertise to as many people as possible without costing you anything.”

Of course, all these activities eventually will create a platform for sharing knowledge but moreover, it will forge a connection between the business and the local community — your potential customers.

Service center

Whenever Justin Seeley’s flight is delayed, he doesn’t call the airline’s customer service number for details. Instead, he heads to Twitter. Like many of the 200 million active registered users, the staff author for online learning company Lynda.com turns to the networking site for immediate information.

The number of consumers reaching out to brands for customer service via social media increased 25 percent between December 2012 and this past March alone, according to social media management firm Sprout Social. This number is expected to increase as more firms bridge the gap between corporate entity and human interaction.

Incorporating Twitter into a customer service channel doesn’t necessarily require a special user handle or hashtag, but it may be helpful to have one, suggests Seeley. Not only will it provide customers a direct route to assistance, but it also sends a message about a firm’s social media status and commitment to providing instant help, any time of day.

Adapting to this cultural shift could pay off for companies who provide more than just an email form on their websites or a number to call that’s only answered during operating hours, Seeley says.

First, opening this line of communication offers a small business owner the ability to address a customer’s concerns in real time with little effort. If it’s after hours and a client is having an issue with a pump, for instance, the professional can attempt to troubleshoot the problem and may even be able to resolve it via tweets without ever having to make a house call. Either way, the customer will appreciate the special attention, says Seeley.

Second, providing a special Twitter handle for service demonstrates to the consumer that there’s a real person available and willing to help, not just selling products when the store’s doors are open.

Third, if these service calls are handled publicly (as opposed to in a direct message), others may find the information useful as well. This plays powerfully into building the company’s reputation.

“If you find people having pain points in a given area and address them, they think of you as a problem solver and a thought leader,” Seeley explains.

Lastly, this option could generate new or repeat customers.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve engaged in casual conversation on Twitter about a problem and then it turned into them subscribing to my blog or buying things from me,” Seeley notes. “They will see you know your stuff and think, ‘He is the kind of guy I’d like to have over my house to fix my pool.’”