Social Media: The First Wave

Convention Keynote Speaker David Nour challenges our industry to reinvent our infrastructure, and some distributors are taking initial steps.

Every Distributor will tell you that customer relationships are at the heart of his or her business; in fact, relationships are the engine driving their success. In this new age of digital communication, establishing relationships has become harder. The days of bellying-up to the bar with a customer are pretty much gone. What’s replaced it? A new way of developing a relationship. For those kicking and screaming about it, just hold on. Several Distributors have put their toe into the social (i.e., relationship) media waters.

While many suppliers, with large marketing departments, are using these social platforms, it’s a different story for small and mid-size distributor businesses, who lack resources, interest, information. WGT gathered together some of those responsible for the daily and weekly tweets and posts from small and mid-sized distributor businesses to find out what is working, what’s not, and to answer the only question some of us have: “What is the return on your investment? You selling anything?”

Cindy Yohe Lindsay, Marketing & PR Director
Coastal Welding Supply (Beaumont, TX)

1,126 Facebook likes
“Every time we do a Facebook boost, there’s an uptick in sales. With only a $50 expense to reach an audience up to 17,000, any ROI is justified.”

Debra Malmos, Marketing Manager
Central Welding Supply (North Lakewood, WA)

2,873 Facebook likes
106 Twitter followers
209 Facebook likes for online store
“Engaging staff members in content development creates interest in their sharing it.”

Evan Bennear, Sales Manager
Dale Oxygen (Johnstown, PA)

218 Facebook likes
106 Twitter followers
“Social media is a very powerful tool to reach a very large audience.”

Jennifer Held, Sales Support & Communication
Indiana Oxygen Company (Indianapolis, IN)

481 Facebook likes
1,133 Twitter followers
“You don’t have to spend $50,000 to reach a large number of people.”

Josh Haun, Director of Operations & Marketing
Haun Welding Supply (Syracuse, NY)

469 Facebook likes
559 Twitter followers
“With no cost involved, we saw social media as a low risk marketing opportunity.”

Libby Engeman, Web Presence Specialist
O.E. Meyer (Sandusky, OH)

181 Facebook likes
241 Twitter followers
“Social networks widen our reach and definitely help create new business.”

Simeon Buck, IT Manager
Minneapolis Oxygen Company (Minneapolis, MN)

70 Facebook likes
302 Twitter followers
“Make sure you are fully committed. If you don’t update your pages, it looks like you don’t care.”

Timm Evans, Vice President of Sales
Cee Kay Supply (St. Louis, MO)

1,909 Facebook likes
735 Twitter followers
“With the competition that exists, businesses must have constant exposure.”

WGT: What advice do you have for a business reluctant to create a social media presence, for whatever reason…don’t know much about it, no resources, it’s for kids, etc.?

Debra: Don’t be so afraid that you don’t test the water. A lot of companies are doing social media. Step off and start doing it as an experiment, and see how it goes. It takes a while to establish the long-term content. Be willing to take that first step and learn as you go through the process.

Jennifer: What do you have to lose? Our industry is completely different, and how we do business breaks the mold in several ways. Of course it will be a challenge when beginning a social media program, and the employee doing social media must like being challenged.

Simeon: If you are just getting into social media, make sure you are fully committed and are updating your pages. We struggled with that at first. If you don’t update your pages, it looks like you don’t care. You want to make sure you’re active.

Timm: Even if you’re not ready to start utilizing social media, get your social media profiles and accounts set up so you have the names you want when you are ready to start. There is no cost to setting up a profile. Be sure that your employee is knowledgeable enough about social media so that you’re doing it correctly.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association

WGT: What about resources? Many companies are spread pretty thin.

Debra: Utilizing talent on your staff may not seem like the first choice, but there may be current employees who are really good at Facebook and Twitter. Why not use them? It’s important that whoever is doing it for the company has good writing skills, and some ability with graphic design.

Libby: Each platform has a different tone, so you have to write differently for each one. Facebook is more relaxed; Twitter is short messages; LinkedIn has a professional tone.

WGT: Which brings up the question about background and skill level. Several of you work in IT; several are marketing professionals; some have other positions within their companies. Plus you do break the mold on the reference that only “young people are doing social media.” How did you convince your companies that social media would be valuable?

Timm: Cee Kay Supply hired a graduate from college four years ago with a degree in journalism. We were looking for someone who did not work in the gases and welding industry and wanted a fresh, new perspective for our blank canvas. We wanted to be ahead of the tide. As our go-to-market strategy became more skilled, we gained more followers and saw more interest.

Jennifer: While I was in graduate school studying communications, I did PR work and social media for the engineering school’s EcoCar team. Indianapolis Oxygen Company hired me to do administrative and accounts receivables work. At the time, there was not much activity on the company’s Facebook page and Twitter account. I wrote a proposal, mapped out a strategy, and illustrated the possible ROI. I had only been at the company for a few months, and some people looked at me like I had three heads! Working as a receptionist afforded an opportunity to learn a lot about the business, including processes from start to finish, which prepared me well for moving into a communications role.

Libby: Three years ago, I was finishing up a degree in communications. I had some basic social media classes and learned a lot working with the school’s social media manager, helping to launch a Facebook page and doing social media posts. O.E. Meyer had an underutilized Facebook page when I began working here. I said, “Let’s give it a stab.”

Josh: As director of operations and marketing, I’m always looking for ways to promote Haun Welding Supply. It did not take a lot of convincing to start doing social media. There’s no cost involved…just some time to set up and to manage the pages. We saw it as a low risk marketing opportunity.

Simeon: I previously worked at a large food distribution company, working on servers, managing cellphones and other electronic devices. When I was hired in 2013, I realized that Minneapolis Oxygen Company’s website was old school, static, and in need of change. At the time, the company’s presence on social media was scattered. We hired my wife, a stay-at-home mom who is also a web developer, to maintain our website, Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Cindy: This past year, I came in-house as director of marketing & public relations after working for an ad agency doing Coastal Welding Supply’s work. I handle all the social media. Management was 100 percent on board and had the philosophy that if we’re going to do it, we were going to do it right. I think management has to be 100 percent committed before beginning to utilize social media.

Evan: I serve as the sales manager at Dale Oxygen and have experience with personal social media accounts. I’m transferring that knowledge to manage our company’s social accounts.

Debra: I’ve been Central Welding Supply’s web developer since 1999, working for an outsourced company. Five years ago, I came in-house to do web and other technical development. I recently became the company’s marketing manager.

WGT: How do you know if what you are doing is working?

Evan: Facebook’s analytics and Insight Pages tell me the number of new likes, posts shared, reposts, the location of people posting and from which social networks.

Josh: I look at the number of likes for a post and the interaction. I judge by engagement and the interaction others have with the post, the comments.

Cindy: The analysis provided free by Facebook is extremely helpful in determining where most of the interaction is coming from, the age and demographic responding to the posts and to our sales offers.

Debra: I use Google Analytics and Hootsuite. I know that 40 percent of the traffic going to our website comes from social networks.

Timm: Google Analytics is a good tool. It tells me where people are coming from when they go to our company’s website, and if they are coming from social networks.

Jennifer: I also use Hootsuite and the demographics provided by Facebook. I do a weekly update on specific posts and graph the information to follow the trends. That information is reported to my supervisors.

WGT: What about sales? Can you track that a sale has taken place because of your social activity? Can you prove any return on your investment of time and, in some cases, money for ad words?

Josh: People have contacted Haun Welding Supply through Facebook looking to purchase specific items.

Timm: We often see a spike in activity when specific information is posted, like the day we did a post on our welder training, there was an increase in callers wanting more information or to sign up. We recently posted a two-sided sales flyer and found the SKUs on the flyer had increased transactions.

Libby: Social networks widen O.E. Meyer’s reach. We’re communicating with and getting inquiries from people outside our local area, and it’s definitely helped create new business.

Evan: We do get inquiries on products we post to Facebook. We saw a lot of activity when we ran special pricing on propane.

Cindy: Every time we do a boost campaign, there is an uptick in sales, it’s almost instant. I inform our branches when an offer has been boosted and managers provide input as to upticks in traffic and sales. With only a $50 expense to reach an audience up to 17,000, any ROI is justified.

WGT: How often do you post to Facebook?

Libby: I post to Facebook once or twice a day, and tweet at least once a day, though usually it’s three or four times a day. Often it’s the same content on both platforms.

Evan: On average, once a week. If a new product promotion comes in from our vendors, we post it as soon as we can.

Cindy: At least once a week.

Debra: A couple of times a week. When my assistant sees the new Facebook post, she does a Twitter post.

Josh: I post a couple of times a week, which only takes up about one hour a week. I don’t want to flood someone’s page with our posts.

Simeon: Facebook is updated once or twice a week. An app links our Facebook posts to our Twitter account, so posts are automatically generated to followers.

Timm: Once a day on Facebook, multiple tweets each day.

Jennifer: On average, two or three times a week, based on when there is good content to be posted. That is what makes social media so tricky. The amount of content dictates the number of times I post. With all of our events in the past few months, I’ve posted more frequently. I tweet more often and try to interact with other companies at least four times a week.

WGT: It’s interesting that those of you with a communications background are posting social media more often, as opposed to those with a marketing or sales background. Perhaps that’s because communicators live and breathe by content! You all have advised that content must be interesting and engaging to the reader. What content you posting?

Evan: New product announcements, promotional pricing, information on Dale Oxygen events, industry-related information. We repost articles from GAWDA’s publications, AWS and manufacturers’ materials.

Debra: An important element of Central Welding Supply’s social marketing effort is to understand and target audience interests to make our social content more engaging. Posts on our Facebook page for local customers highlight special interests, regional sponsorships, contests, community events. Posts directed to our online store’s Facebook page are more specific to products and promotions.

Libby: I’ve connected with a website called “Manufacturing Stories” that provides information about programs to revitalize manufacturing in America. These stories are interesting for many O.E. Meyer customers. I retweet some of their posts and they retweet some of ours.

Josh: Information about our training classes, company events, product-specific information, photos of an open house are all posted. And I share a lot of our vendors’ posts. It’s a place where a potential customer can learn more about Haun Welding Supply, which gives a personal touch of who we are. I don’t do a lot of direct promotional campaigns, i.e., we have a sale this week on welders. We do some promotions, but from my personal experience, when a company does too much, when everything is about a sale or pushing a product, I eventually start ignoring the posts. That being said, we put clearance items on eBay and link them to our Facebook page.

Simeon: Information from our suppliers, industry news, industry articles, flyers and Minneapolis Oxygen Company news. If posts from our suppliers are interesting, we repost them. Twice a month, we post giveaways of hats, mugs, etc., and have found that people go to our Facebook page a lot to find out about giveaways.

Cindy: We highlight accomplishments within Coastal Welding Supply, along with topical issues. We also post warm fuzzies about our employees. We don’t use Facebook as a selling tool; we use it as a source of information. It’s important to remember to keep the content timely, concise and informative.

Debra: The majority of content I promote is through the help and participation of Central Welding Supply’s entire staff. They are the ones in the field sharing stories, events and photos from large scale installations. We even have occasional in-house contests for best photos. Engaging staff members in the process of content development involves everyone in the process, and I’m sure contributes to their interest in sharing content with their friends.

Timm: We target posts to certain interests. For example, we can have posts go to “welders within a 50-mile radius.”

Cindy: We do a lot of Facebook boosts targeted to specific markets. It’s like a modern day direct mail piece. For example, I have a generator and I want to target a 50-mile radius in a rural area with words like welders, construction, ranchers, farmers, electrical. I want a demographic of 25-54, and I want 40 percent female, because statistics show women buy generators for their homes. I set the optimal time as Thursday, Friday, Saturday, because people use Facebook at work and on Saturday. This becomes an ad campaign that cost my company 50 dollars and reached 11,099 people. Of those, 262 people reacted to the post (clicked on “Find Out More”). While I don’t know how many generators were sold as a result of this Facebook campaign there’s no way I could have picked a target market like that with a radio or television ad.

WGT: Your number of followers vary widely. What are you doing, if anything, to increase the number of followers to your social platforms?

Timm: We leverage Cee Kay Supply’s social accounts with those of our vendors who have a large numbers of followers, and geo-locate back to our location. You always want to link social media back to the website to generate more traffic. The number of followers increases as you get better at doing it.

Libby: Signs about our social media outlets are posted in the stores, so they are visible to people coming in and out. I rely on our vendors and AWS to share the posts I send out, which helps attract new likes for O.E. Meyer.

Debra: We do a post when CWS sponsors a community event. When the organization promotes that event throughout their community, they link back to our post, which increases our numbers.

Evan: We’ve done campaigns to promote Dale Oxygen’s Facebook page. We encourage people to share our posts, which generates additional likes. We plan to utilize sponsored postings.

Jennifer: Unless you pay for it, you have to count on such an engaging post that your followers will share it, which then increases your numbers. Our best results come from community involvement. We publicize our social media at fundraising events for various non-profits; it’s also posted on business cards, and we’ve seen our numbers increase.

Josh: We promote our social media in quarterly flyers and at company events. I share a lot of our vendors’ posts, so people following those vendors will also see the links to Haun Welding Supply.

Simeon: There are multiple links to our social accounts on Minneapolis Oxygen Company’s website.

Cindy: Facebook is like a pebble tossed into the water. Last year, we had 400 followers. As we began to post more often, the number of followers increased. Today we have almost 1,200 followers. Get your employees to like your Facebook page, because they are usually running around with other people in the same industry.

Libby: Not all employees are comfortable liking the company page. There’s a stigma. If they like the company page, some worry that we can see what they are doing on their personal page.

Timm: Search Engine Optimization is also important. We pay for some google ad words, which is what most of our budget goes to.

WGT: All of you are using Facebook. What other social media are you working?

Josh: We recently starting using LinkedIn as a recruiting tool. I’ve noticed that customers and potential customers follow us on Facebook, whereas on Twitter there are more vendors and international companies that are not potential customers. So I put more focus on Facebook.

Jennifer: Some social media outlets work better than others for our target market. There currently is an older demographic getting onto Facebook. We also are using Twitter. A few months ago, I set up an account on Instagram and put up photos of Indiana Oxygen Company employees at community events. I think Instagram is going to heat up.

Timm: Cee Kay is using Instagram, too, and adding photos a couple of times a week, photos that represent our business and appeal to the type of followers we have. A lot of people who do welding like to share their welding projects. Some customers post photos of themselves.

WGT: Would this be a space where you could post pictures of projects and installations Cee Kay has done, sort of like “success stories” that could then be used by salespeople?

Timm: That’s a good idea.

Libby: One goal I have for O.E. Meyer’s social media is to start using Instagram. It’s a new way of sharing photos and behind-the scenes stories with others. It’s also the world’s fastest growing social network and has a growing number of those in the welding and gases industry posting to it. Many new hashtags have appeared and people are looking for a new way to tell stories.

Simeon: Pinterest has been an interesting outlet for us. We only have 24 followers right now, but I think it’s something to watch. We have a humor board, a company photo board, a board with pictures of people who receive awards, a board with resources for welders and some of our products. We are working on developing a stronger Minneapolis Oxygen Company presence on Pinterest.

Debra: On Central Welding Supply’s YouTube channel, we post video about safety topics and products. We don’t create the video; we get it from our suppliers.

Josh: Haun Welding Supply also has a YouTube channel that contains several videos about our company. We stream these videos, along with additional content from vendors, in our showroom.

Libby: Google+ brings O.E. Meyer’s pages higher up in the search engines. Although it’s important to continue a presence on the social network for analytics, if I was just getting started in social media, I would not put a huge focus on Google+. It may be just a matter of time before Google distances from it completely.

WGT: Are any of you writing a blog?

Debra: I’d like to do a blog but currently resources are slim.

Josh: We’ve talked about it but haven’t committed the time to make it work. Content has to be relevant and worth someone’s time to read.

Timm: A blog is integrated into our site, and we try to update it every week.

Libby: I blog twice a month. I write about news items and events. Material is always vetted by management.

WGT: How much involvement do your salespeople have with the company’s social platforms?

Evan: Salespeople post some promotions and information about following the company.

Debra: Store managers and staff are vested behind the main Facebook page because it brings people into the store. They are not as vested in the Facebook page for our online store, because online purchases would take customers away from them.

Jennifer: We need to do more. The entire sales team has to be committed to it, and I think salespeople have to be involved with social media for it to work. It will take some training for salespeople to know the best way to work with customers and social media.

Libby: I encourage all of our salespeople to like our site. When they are with customers, they have the social networks on their iPads.

Josh: There’s no involvement from salespeople and we haven’t pushed it.

Simeon: Our salespeople tell customers about our social media. It’s hard to get them to do this, unless they are active on a personal level taking part in social media and know how it works. If it’s outside their comfort zone, it’s difficult.

Cindy: There’s no reason why salespeople can’t be involved. Salespeople connect with other salespeople. It will require, though, hands-on training, and perhaps even a template so all are on the same page.

WGT: There are so many opportunities for customers to post reviews about your company. Have you planned on what to do if a negative review pops up? They’ve been known to come from not only customers, but from competitors and unhappy employees.

Libby: Google alerts me that a review has been posted. I send it to management, who filters out which division should get it. If it’s negative, it is addressed right away. And we address it online so everyone can see that we do address any problems that may come up. We also contact the reviewer.

WGT: You indicated how important it is to keep learning and growing your knowledge of how to succeed in B2B social platforms and to find that ROI. What else are you doing?

Debra: We are establishing a team to do social marketing and will utilize inside talent. Currently we post when things happen. We want to be more proactive about what to say and when to say it, so we’re formalizing a posting schedule.

Jennifer: I am in the process of setting forth a strategic social media plan for Indiana Oxygen Company. I’m reviewing the results of the past two years to see where we’ve grown, what’s worked and what hasn’t. I am getting input from a lot of people, which will help create support.

WGT: We began with advice for companies reluctant to do social media for a variety of reasons…lack of time, little knowledge of how it works, questionable ROI, etc. Let’s end on something really exciting about this new way of building B2B relationships.

Evan: Social media is a very powerful tool to reach a very large audience. It’s an informational resource for our customers to learn more about what is going on in the fabrication industry. That sets us up as an expert.

Timm: With the competition that exists, businesses must have constant exposure to keep the public aware of them and their products and services in order to be profitable and remain in the markets.

Cindy: A lot of readers will recognize this analogy: Do you remember back in the 1950s and 60s when your parents pulled a new car into their driveway and all the neighbors would come over and stand there and ask, “Bill, where’d you get it?” And they’d talk about that car and the experience of purchasing it. Well, Facebook is like that backyard fence networking. We always trusted our friends for recommendations.

Jennifer: You don’t have to spend $50,000 to reach a large number of people. You are capable of doing this from your own fingertips. Your own fingertips. Anyone can do it.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association