Back in 2007, when Facebook was still mainly an online hangout for youths, Ziad Kamel came across a fan page that a customer had created for his restaurant.
He quickly realized he had seen the beginning of a trend, so he started his own social media campaign, giving his entire staff regular training on how to market their business through likes, tweets and shares – all while using good professional etiquette.
“I geared the whole company toward it. Any employee can be positioned to speak for the company whether they know it or not,” says Kamel, whose main restaurant Couqley, a French bistro in Gemmayzeh, now has a Facebook community of over 20,000 fans. “I believe this is where the future is going. Year upon year it becomes more important.”
On their Facebook page , Kamel says he and his colleagues promote everything to do with the business, the Alleyway Group, which includes five venues located on a small side street.
“We interact and engage with customers. It’s more rewarding than traditional media,” he says, noting that it’s “trackable” through clicks.
Throughout the world, including Lebanon, companies are increasingly seeing social media not as an option but as a necessary and integral part of their business.
According to a 2012 survey by the U.S.-based Social Media Examiner, 83 percent of marketers said that social media was important to their business. Even with minimal time invested, most (85 percent) said social media increased exposure to their business.
The survey also found a direct relationship between the marketer’s age and the time spent on social media . Those aged 20 to 29 spend more time on social media – both marketing and consuming – than other age groups.
And it appears that the number of companies using social media to reach customers will continue to grow. Emarketer predicts that by next year, social media ad revenues will reach $11.9 billion, accounting for around a third of all online advertising.
In the past six months, expected ad revenue for Twitter was revised twice to reflect sharp rising demand, eMarketer reported Thursday.
The microblogging service is now projected to make $950 million in 2014 and $1.33 billion the following year. Just a year ago, its ad revenue was estimated at $540 million.
Facebook, for its part, reported in January that it had doubled its ad revenue for the fourth quarter compared with the previous quarter, which helped the company’s ad revenue grow 40 percent to nearly $1.6 billion.
The photo-sharing site Instagram, acquired by Facebook last year, with its ad revenue estimated to be reach around $500 in the next three years, is becoming an increasingly popular site for businesses to promote their products.
“Social media is the new currency. It’s a kind of transaction,” says Beirut-based Darine Sabbagh, who advises some of Lebanon’s biggest companies.
She warns that social media isn’t as easy as it looks if a business wants to do it right, and it should be handled as a vital component, not a side option.
“Even though something is free, it takes effort,” Sabbagh says. “You can’t use an intern for social media. That would be irresponsible.”
Using it correctly requires a significant amount of time and a commitment to engaging customers, responding to their questions, needs and complaints. The Hangout, a new restaurant in Gemmayzeh, gives its Facebook fans a riddle to solve in order to win a prize upon arrival.
Alfa and mtc touch, Lebanon’s cellphone operators, routinely respond to customer complaints, improving their reputation for transparency.
Other companies are using social media to reinvent themselves. The Phoenicia, the iconic 1960s hotel in the heart of Beirut known for its history and glamour, is trying to appeal to a younger crowd.
Peggy Khoury, who was hired as the hotel’s first e-commerce manager two years ago, works to engage the online community by hosting regular “tweet-ups” at their various restaurants and hosting bloggers to spend a night and review their stay.
“You need to engage with what’s happening around you. It’s no longer one-way communication,” says Khoury. As a five-star hotel, she adds, the challenge is to be close to the people while still keeping a professional tone, which she admits can be tricky.
While social media has become an indispensablepart of customer outreach, times have changed from just a couple of years ago when a small company could open a Facebook page for free and generate a buzz with customers. These days, with nearly every company competing to have their voices heard on social media, they need to do much more to stand out.
This can be an obstacle to small businesses, which from the early days of Facebook have benefited from being able to open free groups and fan pages .
But with EdgeRank, the algorithm used by Facebook that determines through popularity what items are shown in a users’ newsfeed, the voices of smaller businesses with relatively few “likes” can be drowned out – a problem that has arisen for them as the social network has reached over a billion active users, 10 times what it was just five years ago.
To move up in the EdgeRank, more companies are paying for Facebook advertisements – today only 15 percent of a company’s fans see its posts – still a small price to get the exposure once only enjoyed by large companies. Indeed, the price of one full-page ad can be the equivalent of a one-month Facebook advertisement.
“A lot of people fall into the mistake of having social media without advertisements. It’s like they’re just talking to themselves,” Sabbagh says. “Before, they could grow their social network organically, but not anymore.”
Bottom line, in today’s market, she says, “a business that invests in social media wins in the long run. If not, it’s losing visibility.”