I can remember 12 years ago, there was a buzz about the coming of an “information highway” that would change how we do business. Then, all of a sudden, a line listing was added to my budget for Internet and web services. According to Internet World Stats, there are now an estimated 251,290,489 Internet users in North America (as of March 31, 2009), which equates to 74.4% of the population.

The Web has changed from a read-only platform to a read–write environment where people can share their opinions, choose to follow, receive and share interesting information, and connect >to friends and businesses.

We’ve all heard the buzz about social networking: blogging, instant messaging, podcasting, webinars, picture and video sharing, wall-posting through social networking services (applications) such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, MySpace, Linkedin and Yelp, just to name a few.

 Like any new trend there are stages: 1) the buzz, 2) the excitement and participation, 3) the landing place where all new items go when the excitement settles down or ends. If it were a food product, it might find a permanent place on our shelves or move out into the mass.

Keeping those stages in mind, let’s remember some of the hot trends that we shared with consumers: fruit juice-sweetened foods, oat bran, non-hydrogenated, organic, green tea, low carb and green. That’s just a teaser to make my point—I’m not even touching the supplement world because it’s too huge! Did we stand back as an industry, or did we embrace the buzz?

So, how do you apply this new “social media” into your marketing endeavors? Here are some quick-step tips for getting started:

1) Stop thinking of social media as a strange new world and start thinking of it as a new vehicle to distribute the same information and messages that you’ve been delivering through handshaking marketing (whew!).

2) Don’t try to learn every application available. Choose a simple networking service and learn more about it. There are tons of online webinars and articles to get you started. (Consider www.Twitter.com as a possible first step.)

3) Create a simple marketing plan that ties together the marketing tools you currently use and your new social media connection to invite customers to stay connected and follow you. See the example below of a simple shelf talker or Web banner that invites participation.

Shelf talker example that can be downloaded from askDebby.com

4) Use your new media tool to share event announcements, exciting arrivals to your store, great recipes, inspirational quotes from you, favorite picks from your employees, contests, even links back to your Web site and others of interest. Think of the messages as headlines of interest where people will follow you back to get the rest of the story.

The social media goal is for you to create an additional environment for sharing exciting information with your customers. This medium is a perfect handshake marketing type of communication for building and reinforcing relationships and for word of mouth marketing opportunities.

There’s a lot more to share. Don’t miss my “Social Media: Tips for Generating Opportunities in Today’s Economy” article coming in September’s WholeFoods Magazine. WF

Debby Swoboda, president of Debby Swoboda Marketing Solutions, has over 22 years experience in the natural products industry developing and executing effective marketing and merchandising programs for independent retailers, distributors and manufacturers. Debby enjoys teaching retailers how to utilize partnerships and seize opportunities to maximize sales and profits. Her support of independents led her to create www.askDebby.com, a resource for education programs, free downloadable shelf talkers label branding program and a host of other items for retailers. Debby is an expert contributor to industry publications, writes featured Marketing Tips articles, presents live TeleTrainings (webinars) as part of Tree of Life’s Knowledge Center, is a guest blogger for The Natural Foods Merchandiser, and is a national presenter at national and regional shows. Debby is an active board member of the Southeast Natural Products Association. Debby can be reached at (772) 287-9559, or follow her at www.twitter.com/askDebby.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, July 2009