Written By Randi Thompson, Founder of the Award-Winning “How to Market Your Horse Business”
If you’re running a horse business, chances are you spend more time in the saddle, in the arena or on the business end of a muck fork than you do in front of your computer. But just because you run an “offline” business doesn’t mean you can’t benefit big-time from “online” marketing. In this series of articles I’ll introduce you to marketing through online social media and how it can help build your brand and your business.
Social media includes big sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Google+, as well as hundreds of forum and chat room sites dedicated to shared interests – like, say, horses! Millions of people are on social media sites like these everyday – in fact, using social media is second only to checking emails in terms of online activities.
It’s obvious why social media sites are important tools for online retailers and other online businesses: social media sites are free, efficient ways of marketing to the virtual world. For an online business it makes perfect sense to market to online customers.
But many people mistakenly believe that social media can’t play a role in marketing an offline business. That can be a serious mistake. After all, your current and potential customers could be on social media at any time. When people want information about something these days, where do they go? To the Internet! Right now there could be someone looking online for a boarding barn, trainer, tack shop, feed store, equine vet or anything else horse-related in your very own area. Would they be able to find your business? What would they learn about you? And who’s controlling what gets said about your business online? The obvious answer is that you should be!
Your first priority for online marketing is to think about how you want your business to be represented in the virtual world. Your potential customer is sitting at a computer, not at your physical place of business seeing it in real life or hearing directly from you or your staff about what you have to offer. What you need is a virtual means of communicating the same points and benefits you’d be talking about in person. That’s how you’ll create an awareness of your “product,” brand and expertise that reflects reality and sets you apart from your competition.
The great thing is that technology today can make it easy to develop online content that’s compelling and fun – once you know what it is you want to say. A photo slideshow and short videos can make your social media pages the next best thing to being there. But don’t rush into the fun part yet – first you have to figure out what you should be saying and where.
Step One: Research
Research is one of the most important things any offline business can do when entering the realm of social media marketing. No matter how obscure your business or what kind of niche you sell to, there are undoubtedly other businesses like yours already represented online. And depending on your specific business, you may actually have competitors with their own online retail outlets.
Bad news: your competitors got online before you did. Good news: you can scour through all their social media pages (and their websites) to learn from their good ideas and improve on the things they don’t do well. Everything you learn can put you in a more favorable position when you launch your own social media efforts.
How do you find your potential competitors online? The same way you find anything else you’re interested in: through search engines like Google and Bing, through horse-related message boards and chat rooms, through horse organization websites that carry advertising, for example. If you don’t know the names of many businesses like your own, think of the “key words” that a potential customer would use to find a business like yours and start there.
Be open-minded about the businesses you’re researching: they don’t have to be exactly the same as your own, they don’t have to be in your region of the country, they can even be a completely online business as opposed to offline. In all cases, you’ll be able to learn from what they’re already doing. Here are some questions to help you get started:
• How are other businesses marketing their products/services…and to whom?
• Are they on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google+?
• Do they have profiles on forums related to their products/services?
• What tone do they use on their social media pages and website: casual, friendly, fun, for example, or serious, scientific, disciplined? Is their tone consistent and does it seem appropriate for their product?
• How are they using photos and videos?
As you research each business, critique its marketing efforts and jot down what you liked or disliked, what you thought worked or didn’t, and any ideas you have for improving something. Here are some points to get you started:
• Is it easy to understand their business and its benefits or is their online content confusing?
• Does their Facebook profile look unprofessional?
• Do they have out-of-date Twitter feeds?
Tap Into Your Customers
As an offline business you have another great source for research: your own real-world customers! Ask them if they’d appreciate your being on social media. Would they be interested in a Twitter feed or a LinkedIn profile? Would they friend you on Facebook and be an active participant? If you have younger customers, they can talk your ears off about social media platforms – after all, they’re the ones most likely to be on social media at all hours! Anybody over 30 may have a less informed opinion on social media but may want to get started on it when you do. Either way, talking directly with your current customers is a great way to consider their needs/wants and likes/dislikes as you start firming up your social media marketing plans.
Randi Thompson is internationally recognized in social media for her award winning “How to Market Your Horse Business” and “Horse and Rider Awareness". She is a keynote speaker at national events, author, and expert legal consultant for the horse industry.