The Sign Social Network (Expanded)

Note: The following article about how sign shops and manufacturers are using social media networks to attract customers and improve business appears in our February 2011 issue, but portions had to be cut to fit the space allotted. The version presented here is the complete, unabridged article.

Facebook.™ Twitter.™ YouTube.™ Flickr.™ LinkedIn.™ Online social networks are not only changing how people communicate, but they’re also transforming how companies are marketing their services.

Five years ago, Jeff Gregorio set up a group of Roland digital printers and self-started Designflow Graphics (www.designflowgraphics.com) in Salem, Massachusetts. After noticing a number of his friends and family using MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, Gregorio thought these would be useful marketing tools for his vehicle lettering and wraps business as well—especially since he could reach many people through one central location. “Through posting pictures to these sites, potential customers can see the work that I do upfront. Also these sites provide a means of communication—comments, messages, chats, etc.—that allow me to instantly discuss potential jobs with clients,” he says.

Jamie Harden, president and CEO of Creative Sign Designs (www.creativesigndesigns.com), a national manufacturer of custom and company signs and monuments based in Tampa, Florida, says his company has successfully embraced LinkedIn, Facebook, and Flickr. (Note: Not only is there an “official” company Facebook page, but Harden also encourages each of his seventy-plus employees to keep up their own Facebook pages.) Before getting started with social networking though, Creative Sign Design redesigned and relaunched its Web site (and won an award for its efforts). “We had to make our online presence consistent with the message we were trying to deliver in terms of innovation and design,” he says.

The link between Web site and social media site should be strong. Since Gregorio believes the viewers who see his social networking sites end up wanting more information, he always provides an easily accessible link to his site on his social network pages—a site that keeps with the balanced and organized appearance of online social media. “They can click on the link and visit my site easily,” he says.

The International Sign Association (ISA) also maintains a presence on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Flickr, as well as Twitter and YouTube; in doing so, it too redesigned its Web site (www.signs.org) to complement these sites. In fact, ISA’s LinkedIn group page, at press time, features more than 1,600 members—and growing. “We’ve found the discussions area within to flourish as the group continues to grow,” says ISA Director of Marketing Sarah Singleton. “We’re also pleased that LinkedIn continues to make enhancements to the tool’s group features—most recently developing a helpful interface within group discussions that lends preferential real estate to fresh and popular content. Overall it’s extremely popular with professional organizations and is a leading resource for job seekers and employees.”

(Note: Speaking of LinkedIn, Harden has found it to be his company’s most successful social media outlet because of its professional-oriented aspect. “Since we’re more of a project firm, when using LinkedIn, we know we’re dealing more with architects or people at businesses,” he says. “The professional aspect of LinkedIn has a lot of appeal for us.”)

Ultimately ISA perceives maintaining an active presence in the social media realm as imperative to maintaining a connection with the next generation of sign industry leaders, especially since as a trade association, it exists because of a living, breathing social network. “In keeping with the trends in technology, it’s essential that we stay ahead of the curve when utilizing the most relevant methods of facilitating communication within our industry,” says Singleton. ““[ISA] recognizes that the Internet is an enormous platform for visual communication. We often remark that a company’s Web site is its online sign and is an organization’s number one marketing vehicle, to which all other marketing vehicles point. And today’s most relevant sites are the ones that engage their users in some way.”

Katie Schwartz, marketing coordinator at pre-fabricated monument provider Peachtree City Foamcraft (www.foamcraft.info), says that the advantages of social networking in retail sign shops are endless. “Facebook is an excellent tool to develop a relationship with local businesses or key persons whom [you’d] like to do business with,” she says. “Sign shops can showcase all their photos and communicate their business philosophy online 24/7. Shops can also link photos and comments to their Web sites, as well as ‘tag’ their clients (friends) in photos of projects they’ve completed.”

Schwartz notes that, according to Facebook’s statistics, more than 200 million active users are currently accessing the site through mobile devices. “This means you can get your pitch out instantaneously to your hottest prospects and clients with one click of a button,” she says.

Social media can also be used to complement other marketing tools—such as cold calls. “Social media starts with your employees and your friends talking about your company. There’s been business that’s [developed] because I might’ve hooked up with somebody via LinkedIn or reconnected with somebody I went to high school with on Facebook,” says Harden. “All of a sudden, they’ll realize I’m in the sign business and know somebody who could use my services.

“If you’re trying to call on someone and want to learn a little more about them, you’re able to pull up their profile and see if you have any common interests; there’s no better way to have an icebreaker in a conversation.”

Harden adds that customers tell him, after a sales staff leaves a cold call message, that they’ve checked out his company’s profile and qualifications via a social network. “Now they can see that you’re legit. You can get a good comfort level with somebody before having a conversation,” he says. “I think that’s really changed the rules of engagement on this process.”

Facebook-3MGraphics3M Commercial Graphics (www.3m.com) is currently using Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr and recently started a YouTube channel. 3M Marketing Communications Manager Heidi Anderson is a fan of Facebook because it’s so visual. “It’s easy for our customers to upload their images quickly and let others comment on them,” she says. “We think of it as the “hub” for our social media tactics. If something’s new, it goes up on Facebook first!”

However Anderson points out that the 3M Graphics Facebook Fan page isn’t really about 3M as much as it is a place for 3M customers to collaborate and share ideas. “Although we’ll post about a new product or piece of information, we’re more interested in our customers showcasing their work,” she says.

Fisher Textiles (www.fishertextiles.com) is currently using Facebook and LinkedIn to connect within the digital printing industry. “We give information about our current fabric lines, announce new products, reference trade magazine articles we’re mentioned in, and list tradeshows where we’ll be exhibiting,” says Sharon Roland, advertising and publicity manager at Fisher Textiles.

To engage its sign and display customers in the United States, HP (www.hp.com) is directing its sharpest focus on YouTube and Twitter. “We also have a Facebook page dedicated to the creative and design audiences that offers a different perspective on large format printing,” says David Murphy, director of Marketing, Americas, HP Graphics Solutions Business. “We recognize the value of blogs, forums, and discussion groups as great resources for sharing knowledge and engaging with customers.

“Our Twitter updates don’t just link to content from HP, but also from industry researchers, analysts, journalists, and partners who paint a broader picture of the graphic arts market than any one supplier can alone. We try and interact and engage online with the goal of being a useful resource for industry stakeholders and, most importantly, our customers.”

As for its YouTube channel, HP hosts videos highlighting the company’s newest solutions right next to clips showing customers how to do different things with their HP devices. “Some of the videos we put up on YouTube and promote via links on Twitter are educational in nature, teaching customers how to use HP solutions to capture different business opportunities they may not even be aware of,” says Murphy. “And there are additional tactical benefits, such as the ability to post and track news in real time at industry events like ISA Sign Expo or SGIA.”

Anderson agrees that social media is a great opportunity to extend the 3M tradeshow experience. “[It] allows us to continue that two-way conversation with customers and potential customers throughout the year,” she says. “Customers can ask us questions with a quick turn-around time.”

YouTube-CreativeSignDesignCreative Sign Designs also created a YouTube channel to promote its various projects. “YouTube is very user-friendly. We bought a Flip [Video™] camcorder and upload from there,” says Harden. “We tag our videos with whatever keywords we’re trying to manage on search engine optimization.”

The real balancing act, according to Harden, is to use YouTube to inform viewers but not overdo it in terms of trying to stage something. “One question we’re often asked is how to install ADA signage,” he says. “So we basically filmed the making, installing, and unveiling of a recent large ADA project and uploaded it. Then we used the other social media to let followers know that it was up there. On YouTube, we provided a link back to our Web site.”

Peachtree City Foamcraft also uses YouTube to provide basic information about its product. “As a wholesale-only manufacturer, this medium allows us to speak to our viewers without communicating with them,” says Schwartz.

Primarily social networking is really about synergy. According to Singleton, ISA’s marketing plans include utilizing social media vehicles to convey its primary messages, as a part of a comprehensive strategy that also includes emails and plenty of print pieces. “We strongly believe that print—to many of our members’ benefit—still holds significant marketing value, even as online social networks continue to grow,” she says. “In addition to following a comprehensive marketing plan, we make sure to remain nimble, as we’ll often send a quick industry alert on an unexpected early vote taking place in Congress or a new issue cropping up on the regulatory front.”

The ISA uses several vehicles to reach its online networks, including e-blasts, weekly ISA SmartBrief and monthly Signals e-newsletters, and RSS and social media news feeds. “We’ll add coding that allows readers to easily forward our e-mails or share a message on their social media platforms,” says Singleton.

To get the most interaction and overall experience with a company’s social network site, Anderson urges signs shops and graphics providers to get involved. “Upload your images and comment on others. Chances are you’ll get lots of great ideas from other professionals in the industry,” she says.

Gregorio credits social networking sites as providing rapid growth for his business. He features weekly specials, pictures of new projects, posts about his shop, a schedule of events, shop-related information, and answers to frequently asked questions. “These sites allow me to reach many more people at little to no cost,” says Gregorio. “And I can ask one of my sign buddies for some input on an idea that I may have and get a quick response.”

Schwartz advises to make sure the social media platforms you elect to employ are providing fresh, relevant content and photos that will be of interest to your target market. “Pretend that you’re the client you’re [trying to get] and use that mindset to provide information that would be of interest and value to them,” she recommends.

“We’re always assessing our social media presence and are constantly adapting it to provide relevant, useful updates to our followers,” adds Murphy. “If you’ve just finished an incredible project using HP technology that you want to show off, post pictures or video to our Facebook wall or @-tag us in your Twitter updates. We love to see how our customers are pushing the boundaries with our solutions; in fact, we’ve retweeted more than a few customers’ content.”

In addition to using its Web site to educate retail sign shops about their products and showcase them in photo galleries and downloads, Peachtree City Foamcraft makes certain that links to some of their social media networks for viral updates are easily accessible on its site as well. “We make ourselves available via phone, email, and social networking mediums, so our retail sign shop clients can communicate with us anytime they’d like, in the method they prefer,” says Schwartz. “Our strategy is to build stronger, mutually satisfying relationships with our clients.”

Dirk Moebes, CEO of design software manufacturer Digital Designware (www.mr-clipart.com), uses LinkedIn and some Facebook to promote product news and improvements, announce vehicle wrap events they’re hosting, and invite customers to events and tradeshows. “Although social media can be time-consuming to maintain, they’re an affordable advertising tool,” he says.

Speaking of time-consuming, sculptor Giovanni Calabrese of Hedgehog Union, New Jersey stays up all hours of the night to upkeep his LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts, as well as blogging. “I find it useful sending out quick messages to keep our followers informed, but I really prefer sending quick videos!” he says.

YouTube-SBIWhen getting involved in social networking, Harden indicates that one needs to be 100 percent committed, which might leave some shops (especially those that are short-handed) a little apprehensive. One solution: Hire interns or recent college graduates. Harden credits the CEO of a public relations company in which his company does work with providing him this valuable piece of advice. “She told me that there were kids in college or just graduating that were looking for internships. In fact, I hired an intern out of the University of South Florida to get us up and running. Later we hired a recent graduate as our marketing associate to do this full-time.

“I’m forty-two years old, and I’m learning some of this stuff as we go. But there are a lot of young people with lots of energy out there. Our new marketing associate has been on Facebook for five years now, and she knows the nuances of it better than I do—how to properly post, what’s too much—and it’s been terrific. There’s a lot of energetic talent out there that would love to get involved in this industry, and this is one way to do so.”

Harden is trying many different platforms to unearth the best social networking opportunities. “After all, not trying it out is probably worse—not knowing if it works or not,” he says.

Another item Harden has plans for in 2011 is the start-up of a blog that will not only feature write-ups of projects, success stories, and potential videos of installations but also as a means of recognizing his company’s employees. “[A blog] can be used as an opportunity to speak about the success of our employees. We can recognize an ‘employee of the month’ and put their name in lights a little bit. We can talk about a difference someone made or something creative they did where they took care of a client. This can really build up esteem within a company.”

Right now, Harden is still experimenting with what content could work on his blog. One thing he’s glad about is that they didn’t rush into starting a blog just for the sake of having a blog. “One thing I’ve learned in this process is that you can’t start something and then not stick to it. This can hurt you,” he says. “So we decided to wait and get everything else done with our site before committing to it.”

In addition to starting up the interactive blog on his Web site sometime this year, Harden also recently signed up for Yelp™, which uses ranks and rates from posters about local businesses and then indexes the more successful feedback toward the tops of search engines. “Obviously you want to be well regarded if someone’s searching, but then what you’re trying to do is continue having all these links back to your site. That will help your organic rankings through that process,” he says.

Hopefully the previous information is something you’ve “liked” and can use to interact with customers and others in the sign industry.

For additional details about why (and how to) use social media in one’s sign shop, check out TKO Graphics’ Randy Clark’s advice at http://kylelacy.com/profit-from-your-mistakes/ and http://kylelacy.com/over-1-million-dollar-sale-from-flickr/.

And be sure to check out Sign Builder Illustrated at LinkedIn and Twitter (@SBIMag).


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