Local companies turn to Twitter, Facebook for communication link with customers 

It was only a matter of time until businesses got wise to online social networks. And why wouldn't they? As the Internet-savvy know, Facebook, Twitter and other popular sites give users a chance to be seen and establish the all-important circle of friends.

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Apply this model to a local business " say, First National Bank or Hideaway Pizza " and it becomes more than just free advertising. Through online-only coupons, promotions and updates, businesses can establish a consumer culture and a devoted fan base with little more than a computer.

Take a look at Hideaway's Facebook page: Users can leaf through photo albums, compete in contests, read up on the company's history and find out which branches are hiring. Recently, there was even a little cross-promotion with Tulsa's Marshall Brewing Company. Hideaway's latest e-contest called for followers to create their own pizza via Twitter; the winner's pie is now featured on menus as the Tweetza.

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Or take First National Bank's Twitter page, still in its infancy. Followers get updates on banking features and special offers that non-Twittering customers might not know about, such as 10 free music downloads when opening a new checking account. So maybe these aren't earthshakingly exclusive deals, but a little something extra and the chance to interact with the bank is enough incentive for many customers.

"Communication in any form is worthwhile," said Camille Phillips, administrative assistant for marketing at First National Bank. Although First National hasn't been on Twitter for very long, Phillips said, the user base is growing. "We're trying to open every avenue of communication as possible with our customers."

This kind of company/consumer interaction is a step far beyond the last generation's marketing model of signing up for e-mail updates and weekly newsletters. The level of interactivity and community is a relatively new wave for local businesses and helps establish or reinforce community staples, like Hideaway. And the icing on the cake: Not only is creating a Facebook or Twitter account dead simple, it's totally free.

Janie Harris, marketing director at Hideaway, outlined the decision to bring the pizza place to the era of the tweet.

"In the last few years, we started customer appreciation promotions with the spinning wheel in the restaurant " just as a way to say 'thank you,'" Harris said. "We collected a ton of e-mail addresses from that, but it's kind of stagnant at the moment. We realized that with Twitter, it's a real-time conversation; customers could give us instant feedback."

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Harris said she was fascinated at how simple it was to communicate with customers via Twitter since joining eight months ago " and how these customers essentially became virtual advertisers. Many customers snap cell phone pics while visiting Hideaway and upload them to Twitpic to share with friends and family, she said.

"We twittered about a store opening in Broken Arrow," she said. "People would count down the days until the grand opening. For us, I can't think of anything better. We put the info out there, and the customers built their own campaign."

Hideaway's not the only local business embracing the new e-business model with aplomb. Samuel Gordon Jewelers is a prime example: Its main Web site links to Facebook, Blogger, Picasa, YouTube, Twitter and Flickr. In a way, it's almost user-controlled spam, but with much more flexibility and a friendly face. Some businesses could easily transition from a mostly static, standard Web page to the interactive (and, frankly, addictive) nature of Facebook, Twitter and similar sites.

"For us, it was a natural progression because we had a deep-rooted, flash-based Web presence since '98 or '99," said Daniel Gordon of Samuel Gordon Jewelers. "I just saw that connecting and integrating with customers could create an amazing link and would eventually build strong relationships."

What does this new way to reach customers mean for traditional advertising media? While Gordon and Harris lauded the benefits of self-generated social media, neither said they believed it would replace primary advertising methods, such as print or outdoor banner ads. But Gordon said in time, e-marketing will become more prominent and widely accepted than it is today.

"Niche marketing is the future," he said. "People can't comment on a print ad the same way they can on Facebook or Flickr." "Jake Dalton

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Jake Dalton

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