I grew up on the north side of Chicago, in a blue-collar neighborhood. There were about 30 families living on our block and, before the advent of air conditioning, we'd spend hot summer evenings in front of our homes. Most of the neighbors had common demographics: similar ethnicity, religious beliefs, age, and economic status. In the evening, the neighbors would share a few beers or lemonades on front porches, going from home to home with the children playing nearby. This was my parents' form of networking — over fences, face-to-face.

Today, there’s a new and much more effective way to network over a wide area: social media networks (SMNs). People can now find others who share common interests, beliefs, cultures, and tastes. People join SMNs mainly to listen and contribute to a conversation with other like-minded individuals. They seek the commonality that neighborhoods fail to provide these days. SMNs allow people to reach out to others without awkward introductions, confrontation, or fear of rejection. People who join SMNs are looking to be part of a conversation. They are open to receiving a message.

That's why many people are seeing SMNs as a tool to market with and build sales at a low cost. Wouldn't you prefer to reach 100 people willing to receive a message rather than throw 100,000 messages at a general population that has little or no interest?

You Can Reach Anyone, Including Prospective Customers
Social networking is one of the building blocks that today's Internet, sometimes referred to as "Web 2.0," is built upon. The best way to picture Web 2.0 is to remember that originally the Internet was static. It was available to those with the knowledge and/or money to build and maintain a presence through a web page, and web users could only read the content; they were prevented from contributing. With SMNs, those barriers are removed. Web 2.0 will be affecting your business in the future. Customer self-service, scalability, and on-demand resources are part of this trend that’s gaining speed and energy. SMNs are just the most visible tip of the Web 2.0 iceberg.

There are a large number of SMNs available today. HVACR contractors should pay particular attention to Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Twitter. Each of these has a strength, and demographics that will allow your business to have a different focus for its promotional and marketing efforts.

SMNs aren't used like the typical advertisements or promotions of the past. In SMNs, the contributor needs to add value to the conversation. Participants must earn a place in the conversation; then they can start inserting some soft sales offer and self promotion. Here is where a regular "DRIP" marketing program makes a lot of sense. Drip marketing is making small offers, on a regularly timed basis, to keep visibility in front of the SMN.

Facebook
Of the four SMNs I'm covering in this article, Facebook is the largest and most popular of them all. Facebook says it has 400 million users and 1.5 million local businesses with active pages. The demographics are the real gold: 53.4% of users are women, 63.3% are 25 and older, (38.5% are 35 and older) and they spend on average 55 minutes daily on the site. This is a great target for HVAC services. These are the people who either make or influence these purchases.

Having a company page on Facebook is a great tool to create an easy to mange web presence that can adapt to current issues. A company could post an immediate offer or important information that may be specific to an immediate community need, excess capacity, is weather-related, reflects a special equipment purchase, and so on.

If you're new to Facebook the best place to start is by creating a personal page and adding friends, then developing your business page and maintaining your company's Facebook presence within the parameters that are established.

LinkedIn
LinkedIn established itself as a business-to-business site. It also offers great demographics on a business-to-consumer basis. LinkedIn has more than 65 million users with an average age of 41 and an average income of more than $110,000. More than 64% of LinkedIn users are male and over 80% have a college degree. LinkedIn is the business side of social networking. It allows for sophisticated searches to find people, companies, and information.

LinkedIn is being used as a recruiting tool to find talent and jobs, and it's also great for finding key decision makers that may be interested in your products. The site has specific interest groups that create a forum for people to share ideas, news items, and ask questions. These groups are great for providing a place for customer and employees to participate in the exchange of information. Because these groups have gatekeepers, they can control participation and keep your competition out.

YouTube
With video editing technology being reasonability priced and easy to use, your business can create its own video commercial and messages. With YouTube, there's now a place to "air" the video and not have to pay TV or cable rates. Things as simple as a "How To" video add value to previous conversations and take the relationships to another level. In many cases they get passed around and create referral business. To be effective, videos need to be less than 120 seconds — 60 to 90 seconds is optimum.

When you use YouTube, remember that product and brand placement within the video is key. Large logos, trucks, uniforms, and other company material should always be in frame. Zoom in to get the detail during the video to remind the viewer of the brand. A brief company splash screen at the beginning and end reminds the viewer of your business. Keep the subject matter basic, and rotate and feature different material regularly. Always look for new material, unique projects, and special applications. Consider short features on how to program your thermostat, change your filter, perform an initial troubleshooting on a no heat/cool situation, and so on. The choices are unlimited.

Twitter
I'm going to try to be short with the Twitter explanation, as it only allows 140 characters/spaces per message; so get to the point quickly. To give a perspective, the previous sentence was 140 characters and spaces. Twitter tends to be limiting, but so is the attention span of your younger clients. A message that’s short and to the point is more likely to be read. Twitter is a good place to share updates, such as pollen counts and weather-related concerns, and is a good way to provide a quick offer pointing to other content elsewhere on your website.

There are some great tools to help a business keep a rein on your social media network, and using them can make this daunting task much easier. For example, Google Alerts can help you learn about what is being said about you, your company, and your employees. When issues arise, be prepared to address them quickly and in full sight of the world. Even if a person or their business is not on the social networks, their story and reputation will be. They have the choice to tell their own story or have others tell their version of the story for them.

SMNs won't drive new business to your door. However, they're a great way to support existing relationships, build a referral base, and gain visibility. I suggest that every business start exploring how to use SMNs within their organization. Create a plan, set a goal, and jump in.

Matthew R. Prazenka is a founding principal of Abacus Business Leaders, LLC, a business management group providing interim or surrogate C-level expertise for companies from $600,000 to $50 million in sales. He has more than 30 years of experience in the mechanical contracting and service industry. He can be reached at 877/412-2228 ext. 1030, or by e-mail at mprazenka@abacusbl.com.