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Local merchants use Facebook, Twitter to attract and keep customers

While preparing for a busy Friday-night dinner service, Ruben Larrazolo, owner of Alebrijes Mexican Bistro in Lodi, told his Facebook friends to guess what the evening’s special would be.

He updated with hints as the dish came together, posting photos online of shucked corn, tomatoes, jalapenos and radishes.

By the time the pan-seared red snapper fillet over corn cream sauce emerged, several customers were hooked, announcing on the social networking site that they planned to eventually dine at Alebrijes.

Merchants such as Larrazolo are using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other online outlets to connect with customers, build relationships and save money. The sites also enable businesses to announce events, sales and specials and get instant feedback from patrons.

“The goal of social networking media is to keep in touch with people who are not here,” Larrazolo said. “It’s about keeping an interaction with them.”

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In addition to being a venue to transmit basic information on a product, the Internet has also become a form of interaction, said Sacha Joseph Mathews, assistant professor of marketing at the Eberhardt School of Business at University of the Pacific.

“It’s now a two-way street,” she said.

Facebook’s and Twitter’s potential to help businesses during a dismal economy should be too enticing for many to pass up, Mathews said.

“Companies have to be aware these are opportunities passing them by,” she said.

Social networking sites help streamline event promotion, said Jaime Watts, executive director of the Downtown Lodi Business Partnership. The group’s Facebook page includes photos from a recent farmers market and the “Stuck in Lodi” Car Show.

“For a nonprofit like us with a limited budget, Twitter and Facebook provide us a wonderful way for marketing with no cost,” she said.

However, merchants must be careful not to overload their followers or friends with constant messages.

“Unless a lot is going on, we keep our posts to once a week so people don’t feel bombarded,” Watts said.

And just as with the dishes he produces, Larrazolo knows constancy is key when it comes to making postings on Facebook.

“I don’t want to overwhelm them,” he said. “I just want to make sure they get the same feeling they get here at the restaurant.”

Facebook’s internal settings make tracking page views less of an exact science than on a typical website. Users can view a page without becoming a friend, and the page’s owner is never the wiser.

However, Watts believes the numbers of friends or followers and links a page has can point to some measure of importance. Her group’s Facebook page has 650 friends and links to 27 businesses that are part of the partnership.

Other companies are finding inventive ways to market themselves using the Internet. Beckman Optometry is courting potential Lasik clients through a YouTube contest in which contestants submit a one- to three-minute video explaining how Lasik surgery would enhance their lives.

Winners receive a free Lasik operation worth $5,000 or free contact lenses or glasses.

“The deadline was going to be Tuesday,” said office manager Carol Dowler. “But we pushed it back to Sept. 30 because people were asking for more time.”

The trend hasn’t escaped marketing experts.

On the Lodi Winegrape Commission’s Facebook page, posts go up three or four times a week and include information on upcoming events, pictures and questions designed to spur responses from friends.

“The key is have a conversation and be listening to the audience,” said Shannon Harbert, marketing and communications coordinator for the commission.

And last year, the inaugural Treasure Island WineFest attracted thousands of people to taste Lodi wines in the Bay Area. Charlene Lange, who helped coordinate the event, said Facebook and Twitter were integral to reaching out to visitors while staying within the event’s shoestring marketing budget.

For this year’s WineFest, Lange said the approach would be similar.

“We are following the same formula,” she said. “It didn’t cost us anything but energy.”

Guinn writes for the Lodi News-Sentinel.


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