With social media, businesses toot their own horns

Ah yes, the ringing of the old, traditional bar bell.

Free State Social

A lineup of national social media experts will be in Lawrence later this month to discuss the future of the industry and ways for businesses to take advantage of new communication tools.

The World Company — the parent company of the Journal-World and Sunflower Broadband — will host the inaugural Free State Social on April 29-30 at The Oread hotel, 1200 Oread Ave.

The lineup of speakers includes:

• Chris Brogan, president of New Marketing Labs and author of the book “Trust Agents.”

• Jeremiah Owyang, a partner at the Altimeter Group, a social media research and advisory firm.

• Ellyn Angelotti, editor of Poynter Online and adjunct faculty member at the institute who teaches innovations in multimedia development and social networking.

• Shawna Coronado, an author, newspaper columnist and environmental and health correspondent who has used social media to promote her career.

• Sarah Evans, a public relations and new media consultant at Sevans Strategy.

• Scott Raymond, co-founder of the location-based social network Gowalla.

Tickets range from $295 to $395. For more information and to register, go to freestatesocial.com.

You know what I’m talking about. In good taverns those brass bells that get rung when somebody does something worth recognizing are as common as a jukebox in the corner and a dirty joke on the bathroom wall.

At The Sandbar, 17 E. Eighth St., they’ve always had their own twist on the tradition — a big gong that hangs high above the bar.

How 20th century. The gong has competition these days. You’ve probably heard of it (though not at more than 140 characters at a time): Twitter.

“I love it,” said Debbi Johanning, wife of the co-owner of the bar and self-titled online content manager for The Sandbar. “I try to pretty much tweet something new about the bar everyday.”

It is a new way to ring a bar bell and have it be heard far outside the business’ four walls. The Sandbar has 1,281 followers of its Twitter account (it has about 2,400 fans on its Facebook page). The messages include some traditional advertising — like new drink specials — but they also frequently delve into regular bar talk.

Like so-and-so is celebrating her birthday at the bar right now. Come on down. Or there’s a tale or two about why one doorman is convinced the basement of The Sandbar is haunted. Or a description of a recent “walk of shame.” We could go on but probably shouldn’t.

Johanning said she isn’t sure whether the tweets, Facebook posts, and YouTube videos — most of which she’s been doing since about 2006 — have resulted in new business.

“But that wasn’t the intent,” she said. “It just helps people feel more a part of the bar. I think it does help create a relationship. When people feel like they have a relationship with a business, they will be more likely to go there.”

And here’s the part that excites the bookkeepers: It’s free. The bar pays no monthly fee or anything else to do its social media networking.

“It is really just the time that it takes,” which Johanning estimated at 10 to 15 hours per month. “That is the drawback for a lot of businesses. They don’t want to hire a staff person to do it, or they don’t want to take time away from an employee to do it.”

A hot job

But more businesses are biting that bullet. Annie Noll has been a social media specialist for Ottawa University since September. Working on social media for the university is her sole responsibility.

“I really do get to play on Facebook all day,” Noll said.

The job involves sending out tweets, posting messages on Facebook and constantly carrying a camera as she walks around the campus just south of Lawrence in Franklin County.

“Something spontaneous could happen, and you never know what video will go viral on YouTube,” Noll said.

And yes, for those of you new to this, viral in this case is a good thing. Just trust us.

Noll also is responsible for overseeing the university’s entire social media strategy. That doesn’t mean, though, that she approves every post or tweet that comes out from the Ottawa University apparatus. That is not how social media generally works.

“You do have multiple people posting out there,” Noll said. “You have to trust people to use their best judgment.”

At the Kansas Department of Transportation, Patrick Quinn plays the same sort of role as KDOT’s social media manager. The department frequently uses Twitter to update motorists on road conditions, and has its own Facebook-like site — K-TOC, Kansas Transportation Online Community — that updates various stakeholders on weighty transportation issues.

Keeping the tweets fresh and the sites updated are parts of the job, but some hand-holding is involved, too. Quinn said convincing people that not all communication has to go through some central source often is a task for social media managers.

“There is an element of concern among some, particularly in the government who are used to doing things a certain way,” Quinn said. “Social media does set aside some preconceived, cherished notions about how an organization communicates.”

But both Quinn and Noll report that their bosses have seen the potential. At Ottawa University, it has provided an immediate boost to one of the university’s more critical tasks — admissions.

“Admission reps have been able to get ahold of students through Facebook when they haven’t been able to get a hold of them through phone or e-mail,” Noll said. “This is how a lot of people want to communicate right now.”

That fact, she believes, will have social media positions becoming more common at companies and organizations.

“I think this is definitely the hot, new PR job,” Noll said. “Everybody I know wants to be doing what I do.”

Eye on the future

Universally, though, the love for social media is more hit and miss.

“When I give a talk on this, 50 percent of the room is intensely interested in the subject,” Quinn said. “The other 50 percent believe it is the apocalypse.”

Quinn believes public acceptance will grow in the next five years. The bigger issue may be whether businesses will be able to keep up with the changes in the industry during that time.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and most other social networking sites don’t charge users to post messages. But business models for the sites also aren’t well defined, Noll said, so there may be a day when much changes.

“I’m definitely conscious that all of this Facebook, Twitter and YouTube space is rented space for us,” Noll said. “You are at their mercy. What I’m working on right now is a site that we control that has all the blogs and other features so that if Facebook or Twitter do make changes we can’t live with, that we are not totally up a creek.”