How one small business built Facebook buzz – before opening its doors

Thumbs upI first heard about the Rail Trail Flatbread Co. when my husband and I were in Hudson, MA a few weeks ago looking for a place to eat dinner. We drove by the restaurant’s downtown storefront – a new brick sign spanned the building, and the windows were covered up. It wasn’t open, but I was intrigued. What was going on with this restaurant, and when would it open?

Not long after that, I saw a Rail Trail Flatbread Co. ad on Facebook that included a picture of the storefront. I liked their page, and was immediately surprised to see that the page already had 400 likes and wasn’t open for business yet!

How did they do it?

Mystery

Hudson is a small town. So when someone starts a business, people notice. And, like me, they want to know what the heck is going on. A quick Google search revealed that plans for this restaurant were announced a little over a year ago. Shortly after that, the Rail Trail folks started their Facebook page. Good move – anyone who Googled the restaurant would find the Facebook page. And they would like it to be in the know.

No Update is Too Small

Throughout the fall, as the restaurant neared completion, the owners posted updates about their progress a few times a week – no marketing-speak, just quick posts about hiring staff, painting, finishing the bar, putting up the sign, and testing ingredients. These updates helped add to the excitement, and served as a reminder to fans that the opening was happening soon.

Photos, Photos, Photos

Images are powerful – especially on Facebook, where 70% of all activity is based on photographs, according to a study from Overgram.  The study shows that using images can boost your Facebook engagement by 120% for a single photo, and 180% for a photo album. If you’re curious about the new restaurant in town, you’re probably dying to see what it looks like. And, if you’re a beer connoisseur, a Facebook photo of Rail Trail’s 20 taps is going to rock your socks off. That image got 61 likes, 15 comments and 1 share, and demonstrated the power of social word of mouth.

Welcoming Their Future Customers

Rail Trail started participating in community events before their opening and posted photos on Facebook – they handed out candy during Hudson’s downtown trick-or-treat walk. They invited people to get an exclusive preview as part of the annual holiday stroll. On more than one occasion, they thanked local businesses and vendors for their help with the renovations, and thanked the community for their support.

Rail Trail Facebook Thank You Post

By taking time out to get to know their neighbors and show their appreciation, Rail Trail is forming relationships with future customers. Posting on Facebook is key – fans are used to seeing them in their news feed, and they’re getting to know the business.

Facebook Ads

By early November, Rail Trail’s Facebook page had around 200 likes. With the opening day a few weeks away, they amped up their fan count by buying Facebook ads – when I finally liked the page toward the end of the month, they had reached 400 fans. They were up to 500 around the week of their quiet opening. Ads allow small businesses to directly target potential fans, based on demographics and geographic information. It clearly worked – they doubled their fan count in less than a month!

Social Media Success

I haven’t had a chance to visit Rail Trail Flatbread Co. yet, but I’m already impressed – they’ve proven that you can easily generate buzz for your small business by marketing on Facebook with the right content, and the right mindset.

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Is anybody checking in?

foursquare buttonsI recently celebrated my third anniversary with foursquare. Since 2009, I have checked in more than 3,700 times on 988 days. I have 64 badges, 21 mayorships, and 48 friends, and follow 54 businesses.

After seeing last week’s Pew Center for Internet and American Life report, Cell Phone Activities 2012,  I started to think “Why am I doing this?” Location-based apps/check ins were not among the report’s top 8 cell phone activities. Pew did a study back in May about mobile location-based services, and only 18% of smartphone owners use them. Crazy coincidence? 18 percent of my Facebook friends are on foursquare.

At first, it was about trying a new social media site. I loved the bragging rights for mayorships, and I was one of very few people using it in my area, so I had lots of mayorships. I loved getting the badges too, but I’m not earning too many these days.

So why am I still doing this?

A large part of it is the routine. I check in every – single – day. It starts with the elevator ride to my office – check in to work (I don’t have a foursquare location for my house because my husband would rather keep that private). As soon as I pull up to the parking lot of any of my destinations, I get out of the car, click my remote key thingy to lock it, and open up the foursquare app. When I was in London earlier this year, I bought an international data plan so I could check in (and use the Internet and other apps) – I scored lots of points and got a sweet London Calling badge. My friends who attended Boston’s Social Media Day with me over the summer hovered over a table of social media giveaways – we each walked away with a complete set of foursquare badge buttons.

I think the other part that keeps me going is the possibility of getting a discount. But those are few and far between too. The Gap’s occasionally had some foursquare coupons, and so has Newbury Comics (a funky CD store chain in New England). Lots of places have partnered with American Express to offer coupons or deals, but I don’t have an American Express card. I get more benefits from loyalty cards (especially Panera Bread, Sephora and DSW) than I have in 3 years of foursquare check-ins.

It seems like there hasn’t been enough interest to sustain an app like foursquare. Most businesses aren’t aware of it, and the ones who are haven’t been leveraging it to appeal to loyal customers. They’re relying on those loyalty programs that give them better access to customers, who have to provide the company itself with their valuable personal information in exchange for an account or card. Some of its functions can be completed with other apps that have the advantage of ubiquity and popularity – check ins with Facebook mobile, and reviews/tips with Yelp.

Is checking in worth it? Not for me, not lately. One day, I’m going to get to the office and decide to check my email on that elevator ride to work instead of checking in on foursquare. That day is coming soon.

Why we should shop small

As you’re beginning to see in my posts, shopping takes up a bit of my spare time. I’ll admit it – I visit big box stores (mostly Target and I’m the mayor of my local Target on foursquare), and I am a huge fan of giant malls.

Something happened on Small Business Saturday that makes me want to pull back from my habits.

I visited Chelsea’s Boutique, a little shop across from the post office in downtown Leominster. I’d passed by it many times in the 8 years I’ve lived in Massachusetts. The funky dresses and colorful paper lanterns in the store windows always caught my eye, but I was too busy to stop in. I made a point to shop there on Small Business Saturday. The owner, Susan, was there – she’d had the store for 20 years and knows a lot of people in the community. I could tell by her conversation with a 20-something customer that she was a friend of Susan’s family. She was unflappably kind, and had a crazy amount of discounts for Small Business Saturday – she was practically giving some things away.

As I was paying for my purchases (top secret Christmas gifts for my nieces – I can’t reveal what I bought!), Susan asked if I’d followed her Facebook page – she said she uses it to announce new products, like one of the hair accessories I was buying. “People have been asking when those were coming in – they’re one of Oprah’s Favorite Things this year.”

I walked back to my car – satisfied that I’d finally gone to Chelsea’s, and happy to participate in Small Business Saturday.

A few hours later, Chelsea’s was gone – a massive fire took down the boutique’s building, the former Columbia Hotel.

Chelsea’s customers flooded the Facebook page with kind words and offers for help. Volunteers and community members stepped forward to assist business owners and tenants in the retrieval of their belongings. They made donations. They’re helping them rebuild and move on.

As I read Facebook posts and local newspaper articles about the fire, and people’s thoughts about the loss and rebuilding of these businesses, something occurred to me: If a Walmart burned down, would you see the same thing? Would people be emotional? Would they rush to the scene, bearing supplies and donations and offering to participate in the cleanup efforts?

Would they personally know the owners and workers – would they be friends of their families, or former classmates? Did they shop at the big box because of the  relationships and their emotional connections to those people? Did the owners know them by name? Did they know that they were asking them to order some of Oprah’s Favorite Things so they could buy them as Christmas gifts?

Yeah, probably not.

This is why we should shop small.