Social media is all the rage today for HVAC contractors. Today, we hear stories about contractors around the country that are leveraging social media to grow their businesses. In some cases, they are substantially growing their businesses through blogs and social media tools like Facebook.

You receive emails from HVAC industry associations and see articles like this one in trade magazines telling you that you are late to the social media party.

Now take a deep breath. Relax.

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

In many ways, social media is the new word of mouth. Remember how you've built your business because your customers say nice things about you to other contractors? That same thing happens online for the contractors you service.

The reason why you or HVAC contractors want to be an active participant in social media is because you can influence the conversation.

What do I mean by “influence the conversation?” That means that 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.

Ultimately, social media must do one of three things to work for a contractor:

  • Increase revenues.

  • Lower costs.

  • Keep customers happy (leading back to #1).

Social Media Trends

Since some of you may be nonbelievers, just look at these stats:

  • More than 90 percent of consumers use the Internet when making purchase decisions (Forrester Research).

  • As of November 2011, Facebook has more than 800 million users. If Facebook was a country, it would be the third largest in the world.

  • According to the Content Marketing Institute, 91 percent of companies leverage social media in some way.

  • A recent Hinge Marketing study found that 66 percent of service companies are increasing their online marketing spending in the next 12 months.

Almost all consumers have access to the Internet at all times. According to PC magazine, smartphone sales surpassed PC sales in February 2011. At any moment, people can share content, talk about you on Facebook and even take a picture of an installation one minute after completion (and share it with thousands of friends).

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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 are using Facebook only to push out promotional messages all day long, you'll get ignored. Both contractors AND wholesalers must first understand this concept to be successful in social media.

Most 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.

You need to think like a publisher first, then use those social media tools to move your audience.

The Tools — 2012:

Blogging: Blogging can 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. Simple though it may be, it can be a powerful tool if done right. While you do not own the other social media tools below, 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.

Think of the blog as your magnet and that you will use all the tools below to push toward that magnet.

Popular blogging technologies include WordPress and HubSpot for small businesses.

Facebook: Yes, you should have a Facebook page. You need a presence, just like you needed a website a decade ago.

That said, you should look at Facebook as more of a retention marketing tool. Most people don't “like” their friends until there first is a relationship, so don't treat Facebook like a lead generation machine.

Smart contractors use Facebook to:

  • Post their latest installations (including pictures).

  • Share energy-saving tips.

  • Give exclusive tune-up offers to Facebook subscribers.

  • Show some personality (remember, social media is about being human … show that on your Facebook page.).

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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 mostly revolves around search engine optimization. With Google's most recent Panda algorithm update, Google now pays more attention to content pushed out through social media than ever before as part of their search rankings, so use Twitter to distribute your quality, educational content.

Google+: Google+ is the fastest growing social media tool of all time, signing up more than 10 million users in just the first few weeks. Google+ launched brand pages in November, so now is the time to get your business page up and running. The jury is still out on the success of Google+, which functions in a similar fashion to Facebook, but since Google can throw billions of dollars at the tool and link it to the all-important Google Maps and Google Search, it's worth spending some time on it.

LinkedIn: LinkedIn is growing more popular every day as they have been ramping up their groups and notifications. For contractors, it's a great way to network with other regional businesses, which can help referrals. For wholesalers, there are literally dozens of online groups for HVACR contractors, where you can get active in the conversations, positioning your company as a trusted expert where contractors can turn to for help.

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

Also, most people don't realize that YouTube is the #2 search engine in the world behind Google. As videos increase in popularity and access through smartphones increases, video may be the most critical content component of all to focus your attention. And, according to Forrester, video is 53 times more likely to show up on the first page of search results.

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 other people own). If you need to store your content on a proprietary platform that is secure, try a company like Brightcove.

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Google Maps: More and more, Google Maps listings come up in HVAC Google searches. It is imperative that contractors own their Google Maps location AND regularly check for new reviews on the site (see below).

Yelp and Review Sites: Good reviews don't just happen, contractors have to work for them.

Contractors must pay attention to their profiles on sites like Yelp and make sure they have a process for asking for reviews. After a site visit, contractors should follow up with an email to customers asking for a review and give them a link of where they would like to place the review (Yelp, Google Reviews, etc.). If contractors don't ask for reviews, they won't happen. This kind of strategy also protects contractors from the rare occasion that they get a negative review. Negative reviews only hurt the business if there are not many positive reviews to offset the few negative reviews.

Foursquare: Foursquare is a location-based social media tool where you can target users who “check in” to locations in your area with offers (it works like a GPS via a smartphone). People who check in to your location often leave reviews. Tip: Own your location and make sure the information is correct … then contractors can test offers at some point if it makes sense.

SlideShare: SlideShare is the YouTube for PowerPoints. For contractors, they can upload helpful energy-saving tips to the platform and have a better opportunity for an audience to find them in a search (SlideShare content ranks very high in most search engines). For wholesalers, share presentations on how contractors can be more profitable or run their business better. SlideShare presentations can embed directly into blog posts.

Bringing It All Together

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

What Should Wholesalers Do?

Even though online social media has been around for more than a decade, most contractors still need training and education to do it right. This topic area provides a great opportunity for wholesalers to set up training programs for contractors, as well as possibly offer a new range of services like blogging or reputation management services through partners.

And finally, wholesalers need to use the social media tools themselves. It's hard to have serious conversations with contractors about social media unless you are actively using the technology.

Joe Pulizzi is the CEO of SocialTract, the leading blogging service for HVACR contractors. Joe is also co-author of the new book Managing Content Marketing: The Real-World Guide for Creating Passionate Subscribers to Your Brand. Contact Joe at joe@socialtract.com or on Twitter @juntajoe.