Social media is all the rage today.

You hear stories about small businesses around the country that are leveraging social media and social networking to grow their businesses. In some cases, substantially grow their businesses.

You receive emails from HVAC industry associations and see articles like this one in trade magazines, telling you that you’re late to the social media party. Take a deep breath. Relax.

Now, do me a favor…forget everything you think you know about social networking. Forget what you think you know about Facebook and Twitter, and how your kids use social media.

This article is about a practical way to leverage social media to grow your business. It takes time and commitment, and it’s not easy.

It’s also important to note that your business won’t fall off the cliff if you don’t do any social networking. Things may turn out all right without using social media, but you probably won’t be the leading regional home comfort expert without it.

Let’s Start from the Beginning

When someone says “social networking,” what do you think of?

Social networking has been around since the dawn of time. It used to be simply called “communicating” but we needed a new term after Al Gore created the Internet. Social networking is communicating online with one or more groups of people in an informal fashion. Many contractors associate this with sites like Facebook or Twitter, but social networking occurs on blogs, in forums like HVAC-Talk.com, and on YouTube.

Social networking is the new word of mouth. Remember how you’ve built your business because your customers say nice things about you to other possible customers? That same thing happens online. The reason why you want to be an active participant in social networking is because you can influence the conversation.

What do I mean by “influence the conversation”? That means doing certain things online, listening to what is going on in your region, and distributing the right content in the right places, can motivate people to behave differently and positively affect your brand and your business.

Social Networking Statistics

Since some of you may be social networking non-believers, just look at these stats:

• Over 90% of consumers use the Internet when making purchase decisions (Forrester Research).

• As of January, 2011, Facebook has over 600 million users. So, nearly all of your customers are on Facebook.

• According to Social Media Examiner, 67% of the leading brands use Twitter, and 54% have a Facebook page.

• According to the Content Marketing Institute, 79% of companies leverage social media in some way and, 51% of companies have their own blogs.

Today, social media and social networking is gradually being adopted by all companies, contractors and service companies included. In the next five years, social media will simply be called marketing. It’ll be a core part of your business (like it or not).

Are You Interesting?

Almost across the board, contractors get social media wrong because they start with the tools (Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Let me use direct mail as an example. What if you sent out a postcard through the mail that was blank, completely white on both sides, with no offer or content? Probably wouldn’t help your business much, would it?

The same thing goes for social media. If you don’t have anything interesting to say, the tools won’t help you. If you’re using Facebook, but only push out promotional messages all day long, you’ll get ignored. You must first understand this concept to be successful in social networking.

Important point for HVAC contractors: The majority of consumers don’t necessarily want to have conversations with their HVAC crew, so in order to have any impact, you really have to be interesting and involved.

So, how do you get started? Here’s a step-by-step method to get you pointed in the right direction.

STEP 1: Set Your Goals

Everything you do in marketing should have a goal. Since social networking is marketing, we need goals and objectives. What’s your goal? Lead generation? Customer retention? Research? Link-building? Brand Awareness?

Theo Etzel, CEO of Conditioned Air, Naples, FL, says, “Conditioned Air’s goal in social media is to make sure our brand is wherever our customers are at online.” Theo views social networking as an important and necessary “non-sales” touch point.

Marcus Sheridan, from River Pools and Spas, Glen Allen, VA, has built a lead generation machine out of his almost daily blog about fixing and maintaining pools. The River blog has been so successful that they now help coach other pool companies on their blogging techniques.

STEP 2: Setting Up Listening Posts

If you are having a conversation at a cocktail party, the last thing you want to do is interrupt the group with your opinion if you don’t know what the conversation is about. The same thing goes for social networking.

In the publishing world, we call this setting up listening posts, which is a fancy name for using social media tools to listen to what’s going on with customers.

Before we start to listen, though, we need to create and identify a keyword hit list. These are phrases that your buyer searches for to solve their pain points (i.e., “air conditioning problems” or “replace thermostat Kansas City”).

Tools that will help:

Google External Keyword Tool—shows main key words and alternate keyword variations being searched.

Google Insights for Search — you can find keyword trends to help you decide which keyword variations work best for your business long term. Now you need to set up your listening posts around those keywords.

Tools that will help:

Google Alerts — get real-time content and updates on keywords. It’s especially important to make sure you have Google Alerts set up for your company name and executive team. This makes sure that if there’s a negative review on a review site (see below) or someone talking about you on a blog post or in an article, you’re aware of it and you can figure out how to respond to it appropriately. If consumers are talking about you, you need to know about it.

Tweetdeck — Twitter management tool for seeing who’s talking about your keywords on Twitter. You must have a Twitter account use Tweetdeck.

Advanced Twitter Search — Same as Tweetdeck, but direct from the source. You can search who’s talking about your keywords in your regional area.

Open Facebook Search — search Facebook without logging in.

Google Groups — find and get active in groups that your customers are in.

LinkedIn Groups — another tool to find and get active in groups that your customers are in.

Search any local association groups, news groups, or other places where your customers are talking about the things that affect your business.

Basically, this is the inexpensive way to set up a social media reputation management system.

WARNING: Once all these listening posts are set up, you’ll need someone in your company to own the listening, which in general shouldn’t take more than 15-30 minutes a day (Kodak calls this person a Chief Listening Officer).

STEP 3: Keep a List of Influencers

As your Chief Listening Officer uses those listening posts to gather information, you’ll start to recognize important local bloggers, media sites, associations and even trade sites that cover home comfort solutions. Identify those people/websites that consistently “cover” your market through posting blog content, news content, article content or tweets/Facebook posts.

Tools that will help:

iGoogle — Keep an RSS feed of influencers.

Hootsuite — Social Media distribution and organization tool.

Dlvr.it — Another social media distribution and organization tool.

Klout — Identifies influencers across a number of topics.

Make sure the person responsible for your list keeps it in a visible place near the workspace and updates it on a regular basis. It’ll be important that your CLO starts to form relationships with these individuals and organizations through their blogs and sites.

STEP 4: Developing Your Social Identity

Now that you’ve developed fertile soil for your social networking program, you need to make sure that your identities on social media sites are consistent with your brand, are inviting to customers, and help you with your overall social networking goal.

Blogs

The blog should be the center of your social media plan.Why you ask?

First, a blog is just a website that makes it easy for you to publish regular content (see Step 5). Simple though it may be, it can be a powerful tool if done right. While other social media tools are NOT OWNED by you, a blog is yours. It’s part of your website. This is extremely important. A blog is an extension of your website that you have control over.

Facebook could shut down tomorrow, so the center of your social media strategy needs to be something that you actually own. Think of the blog as your magnet, and that you need to use all social media tools to push toward that magnet.

Popular blogging technologies include Wordpress and Hubspot for small businesses.

Facebook

Yes, you should have a Facebook page. You should have a presence on Facebook. Whether or not Facebook will bring you new business as an HVAC contractor is still up for discussion.

You need to look at Facebook as more of a retention marketing tool. Tip: After a site visit, follow your customers on Facebook. If they connect with you, great! It’s a fantastic way to stay engaged with customers without any hard selling. Sharing your informational blog content via your Facebook page is a best practice.

Twitter

Twitter is like a cocktail party…everyone at the party is talking and more people gather around the interesting conversations. Many businesses push out very promotional messages using Twitter, which everyone ignores because, remember, your customers don’t care about you, they care about themselves.

The importance of Twitter for HVAC contractors revolves around search engine optimization. With Google’s most recent Panda update, Google pays more attention to content pushed through social media than ever before as part of search rankings, so use Twitter to distribute your quality, educational content.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is a great social media tool for interacting with business associates. It’s not a social network that will drive your business from a consumer standpoint. At minimum, set up a company page on LinkedIn so you can be found in LinkedIn search.

YouTube

According to a recent study from Cisco Systems, 30% of all website traffic is video. By 2013, that number is expected to be 90%. The value of YouTube is not to house your old commercials from over the years, but to house your how-to videos and customer case studies that will help your other customers be successful.

A good practice is to load your videos with your YouTube account, but then embed the video onto your blog page (remember, we want to ultimately push traffic to sites we own, not sites that are owned by other people). If you need a bit higher video quality, try Vimeo.

Google Maps

More and more, Google Maps listings come up in HVAC Google searches. It’s imperative that you own your Google Maps location AND regularly check for new reviews on the site.

Yelp and Review Sites

Good reviews don’t just happen. You have to work for them.

I talked with a dentist the other day that showed me hundreds of printed fan letters. Unfortunately, that same dentist didn’t have the best online reviews.

Pay attention to your site profile on sites like Yelp and make sure you have a process for asking for reviews. After a site visit, be sure to follow up with an email to your customers asking for a review, and give them a link of where you would like the review to be placed (Yelp, Google Reviews, etc.). If you don’t ask, it most likely won’t happen. This kind of strategy also protects you from the rare occasion that you get a negative review. Negative reviews only hurt the business if there are not many positive reviews to offset the few negative reviews.

Step 5: Consistent, Helpful Content

Now that the first four steps are complete, it’s content marketing that takes over. In order to make everything work, you need to develop valuable and relevant content for your customers and prospects on a consistent basis.

The best way to do this is through the blog, which becomes the center of your social networking strategy. Expert and helpful content positions you as the regional expert in your field and helps you to get found in search engines AND social media.

According to Hubspot, two of every three contractors that blog at least twice per week see business directly from their blog. Once the blog posts are created, savvy contractors post that content to the Facebook page and tweet out on Twitter. Blog platforms like Wordpress can integrate this automatically.

Remember, social networking doesn’t work unless you have something helpful to contribute to the conversation. Solve your customers’ pain points by developing original text and video content that will solve their problems. That way, when they connect with you and then need your services, they will always look to you.

Step 6: Measuring Results

The final step is measurement. Based on the goals of your program, general measurements could be:

- Increase in leads coming into your website

- Less customer turnover

- Inbound links to your website (from other sites that link to your content)

- Enewsletter signups

- Blog alert signups

- Shortening of the sales cycle

- Number of customers signing up for service maintenance agreements

- Engagement measures, such as when a customer or prospect visits three or more pages (those visitors are more likely to buy).

Bringing It All Together

Social networking is not easy. You have to work for it. It’s also much different than the “bought media” you have been doing in the past like advertising or yellow pages. Social networking relies on “owned content,” which can transform into what’s called “earned media” (when people talk about your company without payment).

Joe Pulizzi is the CEO of SocialTract, the leading blogging service for HVACR contractors. Joe is also the founder of the Content Marketing Institute and co-author of Get Content Get Customers. Joe can be reached at joe@socialtract.com or on Twitter @juntajoe.