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Online, all the time

Seafood buyers, sellers test the waters of online social networks

By Joanne Friedrick
August 01, 2009

For The Plitt Co., a Chicago seafood wholesaler and distributor, experiencing receivership and working with its creditors was difficult enough. So when rumors about the company's future started surfacing, Plitt turned to Twitter - one of the many online social media outlets available - to dispel them.

"The Twitter option seemed to be an easy way to communicate minute by minute what's going on here in the office," says Mary Smith, director of marketing, who has "Tweeted" for Plitt for about four months. "We had the opportunity to get our message out there instantly and let people know what's really happening," says Smith.

Twitter, along with Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Web sites and blogs, provide an avenue to complement or in some cases replace traditional public relations, marketing and advertising.

The lure of social media is instant gratification - it provides a forum for messages that can be viewed and/or responded to 24/7. Twitter, the newest social media outlet on the block, limits users to just 140 characters per message, or Tweet, but is unlimited in its reach: It has about 12 million users worldwide since it launched in 2007, with growth estimated to reach 18 million next year. Facebook, meanwhile, has 200 million active users globally.

LinkedIn, founded in 2003 in Mountain View, Calif., is an online tool used by approximately 40 million business professionals worldwide. The popular business networking site is set up 
differently than social media networks like Facebook and Twitter. Its mission is not merely social or marketing, but to "connect the world's professionals to make them more productive 
master bedroom and successful."

For now, social media outlets are free, which has enabled smaller companies to hit the ground running. Mike Monahan, who has operated Monahan's Seafood Market in Ann Arbor, Mich., since 1979, relies on former employee Wendy Williams, an online marketing consultant, to guide him in the store's nascent social media experience.

"I'm a busy fishmonger," says Monahan. By using Twitter, he says, "I can get out information early and quickly on daily specials or special fish like striped bass and softshell crabs."

While Monahan acknowledges he's not necessarily tech-savvy, he adds, "I've been very open-minded about it. I think the possibilities are big."

Monahan's two-minute squid-cleaning video was recorded by Williams and posted on the company's Facebook page the same day.

"I like the quickness of this," he says. "We can do it during a busy day, while I'm still working. When we have more time, I'll do classes and we'll put that on the Web." The retailer also has posted the squid-cleaning and other educational videos on YouTube.

Williams, who also is based in Ann Arbor and does online promotion for music industry clients in New York as well, recognizes social media is a good marketing tool for her clients.

"Both music and food people are passionate about what they do. Their businesses are always fresh and changing," a perfect fit for the immediacy of Twitter and other online social media, she explains.

"Anytime you can get people to think about your business, it's a victory," says Williams. In the case of Monahan's, "It gives people a flavor of what makes you different from a supermarket seafood department."

An online revolution

The commercial use of online tools is still in its infancy, despite the buzz about Twitter and other social media.

A study of European businesses, released earlier this year by WebTrends, a Web analytics company with U.S. headquarters in Portland, Ore., showed just 2 percent of businesses use Twitter for marketing versus about 45 percent that use more traditional direct mail. Online advertising was embraced by nearly 35 percent of those surveyed, while viral marketing (such as YouTube videos), blogs and podcasts were used by only 5 percent of respondents.

Williams concedes it can be difficult to track the success of a Twitter message. While users can see the number of followers and re-tweets, it's hard to know who is walking in the door of the fish shop because they received a message on their cell phone or computer. Williams has been able to track some Twitter users, however, through the store's monthly seafood haiku contest submissions, which come in via Twitter, Facebook or at the store.

Online tracking is much simpler with search engine optimization (SEO), says Williams. She's working with Monahan to create searches that are unique to the business. For example, if someone searches online for a whole pompano for grilling, she explains, Monahan's site will be at the top or near the top of the Internet search list.

At The Hills Market in Columbus, Ohio, marketing director Jill Moorhead sees social media as the future of marketing.

"I've seen in Columbus how social networking has helped promote specific local brands," she explains. Moorhead registered The Hills for its own Twitter account and convinced Jordan Moore, seafood department manager, to participate. Tweeting as 
"Hillsseafoodguy," Moore typically presents information on specials, new arrivals to the seafood department and sales.

"People seem to like it, and it's good for sale items especially," 
he says.

Moorhead uses social media to supplement traditional marketing vehicles like newspapers.

"The local paper is getting smaller, so it's up to us to get the word out on our events," she explains. "If we want to reach people to let them know about food events, we have to use Facebook and Twitter."

To direct people to those social media outlets, The Hills Market promotes its online presence in its weekly flier and on the store's Web site. One event Moorhead recently promoted on Facebook was the store's 15th annual Salmon Roast, a Memorial Day weekend fund-raiser.

While social media marketing has worked for The Hills Market, it may not be the right solution for big corporations.

"There's a certain size of company that this works for," she says. "If you have to run every Tweet by the legal department, it won't work."

For a new business, such as North Shore Seafood in Lafayette, Ind., Twitter is a means to keep potential customers aware of how the business is proceeding, from finding a site and securing suppliers to scheduling opening day.

Lenny Patterson, owner of North Shore, says his wife, who is a software engineer at Purdue University, pushed social media marketing for his new venture.

The store's Web site has a link to its Twitter account, which features daily specials, some of which are Twitter-specific.

"People who aren't even following me, they show up with friends when I put a special on Twitter," says Patterson.

He also found shrimp and scallop suppliers by making a request via Twitter.

Blogging, e-mail, Tweets, Facebook and event marketing are all part of engaging the customer, says Lynnelle Wilson, founder and president of Bold Vision Consulting, a social media 
consulting firm in South Portland, Maine.

"You just allocate your resources differently," says Wilson.

Every seafood company looking to use social media for business building needs to find what works for them, she says. A store on the waterfront that deals in fish fresh off the boat might want to post YouTube videos showing fishermen dropping off their catch and how to cook it, while a higher-end store may do a piece pairing wines with seafood.

The goal is to "be the resource, so you drive them to your Web site, your Facebook page or your store," says Wilson. Consistency and frequency are important as companies engage their potential customers. "You can't just drop in and out," says Wilson. "It has to be part of a strategic marketing plan."

Wilson agrees that measurement of social media's effectiveness can be difficult. "You can't correlate a click on Facebook to a paying customer," she says, adding, at this point, it's more of a branding issue.

"I think it's important for any business to understand the evolution of what is going on," she says. "Everyone should have a presence. [Social media] has changed the way we do business."

Cutting-edge marketing

Restaurants are also embracing social media. Casey Clinch, manager of Madfish Grill in Sarasota, Fla., began Tweeting over the past couple of months, listing lunch and dinner specials and events such as Lobster 
Bake Wednesday.

The Tweets supplement information provided through monthly e-mails and local newspaper advertising, he says.

Clinch writes a blog as well, but spends less than one hour a day on social media, which he says is likely to attract a younger clientele to the family-owned, casual-seafood restaurant.

Jeremy Ashby, executive chef and partner in Azur Restaurant & Patio in Lexington, Ky., says communicating with customers via Twitter and Facebook fits with the restaurant's idea of being cutting edge with food, technology and trends.

"I think our customers will be Internet-based," says Ashby, who is one of the primary Tweeters for Azur. "This is direct and personal. We want our efforts targeted. This is a voluntary opportunity to follow what we do."

Like Clinch at Madfish, Ashby posts information on the restaurant's menu changes, events and daily specials.

"I'm trying to get everyone on board," he says, noting that the manager and servers Tweet about specials or to let their friends and customers know what's new.

Through the restaurant's newsletter and Web site, Ashby says he's able to follow up on the brief subjects of his Tweets. He also has a personal Facebook page as well as one for the restaurant. Ashby uses his phone to take pictures of new dishes and posts them on the pages, which flow into the Web site and Twitter, "so all three are linked together."

With minimal set-up time and just a few minutes a day spent on Tweets, Ashby finds social media useful. "We like to think that it's working," he says. "We all feel this is the direction in which marketing is going, and we want to be on the cutting edge."

The immediacy of Twitter is perfect for moving perishable items such as seafood. Azur brings in fish from all over 
the country and customers like the idea of knowing what the fresh catch of the day will be, adds Ashby.

Suppliers also have a need to let customers know about what's fresh and what's limited, which is one reason why Plitt uses Twitter, says Smith.

Plitt also uses Twitter to remind customers to place orders. "I've seen a little bit of movement because of this," she notes.

And there's the indirect message sent by using Twitter, which is, "We're hip and we're on top of things. The value of doing it now is you're considered groundbreaking in your marketing, not copycatting," she says.

The seafood distributor has Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts that feature video as well as text. Smith, who recently spent three weeks in Alaska, sent Tweets about her travels and plans to post videos of the fishermen and places she visited.

"I shot a ton of video in Alaska," she says. "It's not a Martin Scorsese flick, but it's fine. I think people worry too much about production value."

Like any marketing tool, Smith says social media requires maintenance. "Once you start, you can't stop. It's just like a Web site, you have to maintain it."

For now, she says, social media "is just another weapon in our arsenal. Because it doesn't cost anything, and doesn't take much time. It's not important to impact the bottom line." That could change, of course, if social media becomes a paid service. Then, says Smith, she'd have to think about getting a return on the investment.

Meanwhile, companies that enter the social media marketing realm can go forth and Tweet, post or blog their seafood offerings, knowing that their customers - and potential customers - will be online as well, hungry for seafood and information.

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in South Portland, Maine

 

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