Being a business owner in a community is a lot like being a homeowner, says Mitch Hoffman, founder and CEO of Building Blocks Early Learning Center, a preschool chain with three locations in Connecticut. “You want to be friends with your neighbors,” he adds. Hoffman credits local social media groups as a way to get to know and strengthen relationships with his neighbors, and also as an effective tool to generate new business.
“A significant percentage of our new business comes from online referrals,” he says. “We currently serve over 300 families, and many of the parents are members of community groups online. We’ve found that when parents have childcare conversations our name comes up because we’re doing a good job for these families—and parents are following up on recommendations they receive online.”
Of course, before you can participate in local conversations you need to know where they are taking place. “We very aggressively search for and follow the active organizations in our communities, both on Facebook and Twitter,” says Hoffman. “It’s helpful for the parents to see us in these conversations. It shows that we care about what they care about.”
The local side of Facebook
Facebook is the largest social media platform in the world, but it’s also where many people go first when they’re looking for a community connection. To connect with your customers, you’ll want to look for neighborhood groups. Some are open to all, while others have moderated membership, where you’ll have to ask to join and be approved by the group administrator.
Be aware that, depending on the size of your community, there may be several Facebook groups. You’ll want to make sure that you apply to join the group that is both relevant to your business and has a consistent level of activity. For instance, if you own a pastry shop, there’s no sense in joining an auto-racing enthusiasts group that hasn’t had any posts since February 2012.
Nextdoor: A private social media network
Nextdoor, which launched in 2011, is a private social media network that limits membership to the residents of specific neighborhoods. To join a community group, a business or resident must verify both their identity and address. This level of security is designed to create an environment where members feel safe discussing local issues without the entire world watching. “Privacy is the cornerstone of building a trusting community, where neighbors feel comfortable sharing information with each other,” says Nextdoor CEO Sarah Leary.
“Business owners are encouraged to join Nextdoor as individual members to connect with their neighborhood and local community,” explains Carla Nikitaidis, director of communications for Nextdoor. She cautions that while many people use Nextdoor to search for a reliable babysitter or handyman, the site is not designed for self-promotion. “Some neighborhoods have chosen to post a policy on self-promotion to help deter neighbors and business owners from excessively self-promoting,” she adds.
Co-founder Nirav Tolia has said that offering local advertising may be in Nextdoor’s future; however, that option is not available at this time.
Action builds local relationships online
Hoffman says he makes a point of connecting with relevant local non-profits, and throughout the year, his business strives to make a meaningful contribution to these groups. “We hold clothing and food drives on behalf of these organizations, for example,” Hoffman says, adding that both the drives and results are discussed by his customers on local social media.
When Hoffman hosts an event, he says he will choose a local deli to cater it. “There’s a florist down the street,” he adds. “That’s where we go for flowers when we’re having an Open House.” Hoffman recommends reinforcing those relationships by linking your local activity to social media posts. This gives your vendors some positive publicity and generates goodwill towards your business. “This is all part of building that neighborhood feel,” Hoffman adds. “We all have to work together.”