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Why Social Media Was Made For Family-Owned Businesses

By Tracy Samantha Schmidt

February 1, 2011

At its core, social media is about authenticity, transparency and community. The same can be said for family-owned businesses that go back generations. They stand apart from competitors by maintaining personal relationships with loyal customers and giving back to their real-life communities.

That's why family-owned businesses are poised for success when they join social networks. They don't need crash courses in customer service and brand management. They've been doing that for decades.

Of course, it's necessary to first understand the technical logistics and unwritten rules of social media. For a few pointers, we talked with two family-owned businesses that have been particularly successful: Garrett Popcorn and Abt Electronics. Here's what their social media strategists had to say.

Customers love sharing their memories

Garrett Popcorn opened for business in downtown Chicago in 1949. Its caramel corn quickly became the stuff of legend and a Chicago tradition. Today, Garrett Popcorn ships its tins nationwide and celebrities openly gush about it. In December, Halle Berry went as far as to fake an orgasm over Garrett Popcorn on The Tonight Show.

"So many people have a history, a story with Garrett," says Michelle Molise, who manages Garrett's social media strategy. "They might remember how their parents made them stand in line for Garrett popcorn when they came downtown for holiday shopping in the 1950s. Everyone asks what our secret is after all these years. The secret is that we still create it the same way we did decades ago. It's all still made in hand batches so it's always as fresh as possible. People have come to find comfort knowing that the consistence is there for 60-plus years."

Molise uses that multi-generational love of Garrett to extend its brand online. Social media strategist Alecia Dantico launched both Garrett's Twitter and Facebook profiles in 2009. Today, Molise and her colleague, Elizabeth Hammel, manage Garrett's profiles. Luckily for them, much of the content they share has already been created.

"A lot of our fans are already sharing their stories about Garrett with each other on Twitter, on their Facebook profiles and in their blogs," Molise says. "People are sharing little anecdotes about how they've tagged-teamed waiting in line or how they might drop off someone at a store while somebody else circles the block. These stories are being told and we're able to find them through general searches."

Once Molise and her team find a post about Garrett, they reach out to the customer directly. "We'll write something like, 'We love your post and we're going to put in our Facebook page.' Or it might be 'We're so glad you had a wonderful time, these are wonderful photos,'" Molise says. "If we can, we'll try to raise that little echo chamber of sharing about how much people love Garrett."

Of course, fans new and old will naturally share their love for Garrett on Facebook and Twitter. Wrote one fan on Garrett's Facebook page, "My aunt told me about this popcorn over New Years vacation when she was here. I've never tired it but I am ordering a tin for myself for Valentine's Day…ALL MINE : P Goin to enjoy it."

Tweeted another follower, "Bring on the blizzard! My Big Game Bundle from @garrettpopcorn arrived earlier today!"

Reputations are everything

David Abt opened Abt Radio with three employees in 1936 in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood. Now called Abt Electronics, the store has more than 1,000 employees and occupies 17 acres of land in suburban Glenview. Its website, Abt.com, ships electronics and appliances nationwide, often with free delivery.

Yet some things don't change. Abt is still family-owned and known for both outstanding customer service and sales reps that aren't aggressive. Jennifer Arocena's job is to extend that reputation through social media, particularly on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Arocena dedicates one of her two computers to Facebook and Tweetdeck, a desktop application for Twitter. This way she can monitor what customers are saying about Abt in real-time and respond where needed.

"If it's a customer service question, I'll look up their information in our system and see if I can quickly help them out," Arocena says. "If it's a sales-related question, I'll connect them with someone who can best answer their question."

She's usually able to resolve the issue or answer the question the same day. If the issue or question is in-depth, Arocena asks the customer to email her directly so they can talk offline. "I certainly don't want them putting their own email or phone number out there for everyone else to see," she says.

At the same time, Arocena says that she strives to be transparent online. That way the other people following Abt's Twitter handle or Facebook page can see its commitment to customer service.

"Last month, a customer was having some issues with our installation and posted about it on our Facebook wall," she says. "I tried to help the customer out by letting him know the status of his install. Later, another customer said he loved the transparency of seeing how we interacted with our customers."

The old rules of customer service still apply

Lately, Arocena has focused on growing Abt's Facebook fan page. A sweepstakes during the holidays attracted many new fans, and now Arocena is experimenting with other ideas.

"A couple of weeks ago, I asked our Facebook fans if they wanted us to create an Abt storefront on Facebook," Arocena says. "Most fans said they wouldn't be interested in a storefront because of security and privacy. They would rather see the promotions on Facebook, then go to Abt.com and shop there."

Her goal is to build a real–albeit online–relationship with both Abt's current and potential customers. "When you come into the Abt store, you don't have a pushy sales rep coming at you," Arocena says. "Our advertising and marketing campaigns are not in your face. We are here for service, here to educate the customers and give them the best prices we can. We want to do the same online through social media."

Garrett also focuses on using social media to talk directly with customers—not to make a sale. "We want to learn from our customers," says Jack Aiello, vice-president of marketing for Garrett. "We don't measure ROI in dollars. We measure it in customer service."

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