Can Social Media Promote a Machine Shop?

Yes. But if you are busy making parts, then stick to what is simple.


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[Note: I have revisted this topic since this column was written. Find my more recent thoughts here.]

When anyone sets out to talk about social media, the danger is that we end up merely talking about ourselves. People are very different from one another. In particular, they differ in the ways they are “social.” Businesses are very different, too—yet if you own or lead a business today (practically any business), it is hard to avoid the feeling that you ought to be engaged with your prospects through Facebook, Twitter or other so-called social media. How engaged should you be with social media? More than you are! Or, at least, so goes the thinking. In reality, many of the voices championing social media right now begin from a false presumption. They assume their world looks like your world, or your customer’s world.

I also think you ought to be engaged with social media. I just hope to avoid that presumption. Businesses are, again, different—and machining businesses are particularly distinct. If you run a contract manufacturing business using CNC machining, then there is a good chance you differ from the leaders of other businesses in at least a couple ways:

First, you have less control over your time. Short-lead-time metalworking is a field in which the common mode of work is a controlled emergency.

Second, broad marketing strategies likely have little relevance, because you don’t wish to persuade thousands of people or even hundreds. You might do cartwheels if you could get a dozen sources of steady, serious and substantial work. Your view of social media (and marketing in general) thus has to be tempered by these realities.

That is why some of the advice I have to give here might contradict the social media experts. I am no such expert myself. I’m still clumsy with social media, and my opinions are incomplete. However, I have seen what is easy and what seems to work—two requirements that are key. Based on those requirements, here is what I suggest:

Have a great website

Any online strategy still has to start here—social media haven’t changed that. Your website continues to be the most natural way for people to seek information about you. The site should be attractive, interesting, focused and clear. It should make plain what is different and important about your shop. If your site is sub-par in any of these areas, attend to this.

Blog? Probably not

Various blogging websites make blogs easy to launch. However, blogs are also easy to do badly. As a manufacturer, it is unlikely you have the spare time and attention internally to support a blog—and that’s fine. Just don’t succumb to the temptation to launch one and add it to your site. A blog that hasn’t been updated in months implies you have a lack of follow-through. If all you really want to do is showcase an interesting announcement every month or two, then have a “news” section on your website.

Use LinkedIn

LinkedIn.com is a networking site for business. Though it’s very popular, I still think it’s underrated—if only because the success of Facebook is so huge by comparison. LinkedIn accomplishes some of what Facebook can do while avoiding the latter site’s difficulties (see below). For professionals, LinkedIn is a wonderful resource not only for staying current with your own contacts, but also to ensure visibility in ways that have minimal impact on your time.

Once a profile is entered at LinkedIn, maintaining the presence requires little to no effort. Changes or additions to your profile are shared with your contacts in ways that unobtrusively keep them aware of you. Increasing the number of connections within your target industries increases how likely you are to be suggested as a contact to others within those industries. Even if your contacts and prospects use LinkedIn no more than occasionally, they still stand a fair likelihood of seeing a reminder of you when they do pop in.

Another plus: I have made beneficial contacts and appreciated some of the online discussions I’ve found as a result of connecting to industry groups on this site.

Join LinkedIn, and begin connecting to profiles of people there who are familiar to you. Connect to me there. (When you do, just mention in the text field that you saw this article.)

Twitter: Not silly

Twitter.com provides a way to send short messages to those who have chosen to “follow” you within the Twitter site. Many use Twitter just on the Web, not bothering to involve a mobile phone. One of the beauties of Twitter is the way it’s forgiving of occasional use. A blog updated once per month looks anemic, but a Twitter feed given a new message at that low rate still seems OK. After all, it’s only Twitter.

To get started on Twitter, create an account and post a few tweets. Then, find and follow other Twitter accounts in your industry. (Examples: “MMSOnline” and “Z_Axis_MMS.”) Some accounts will likely choose to follow you in return, so a few initial followers may result. Even with only a few followers, it is still worthwhile to tweet occasionally, because both keyword searches and followers who “retweet” you can permit your tweets to be seen by more people. Plus, connecting LinkedIn to Twitter (easy to do in LinkedIn) makes your tweets visible to all of your network there.

What should you tweet? If nothing else, use Twitter to periodically describe interesting work being done in your shop—work that offers yet another reminder of your distinctive capabilities and how they are being put to use.

Facebook? Maybe

Facebook is a marvel of engineering. It solves a problem we never saw as a problem before—how to maintain group interaction across a  group that is spread out in space and time. Yet Facebook’s usefulness for marketing actual engineering-related services is questionable. At least, I’ve been asking that question.

To put Facebook here at the end of an article about social media might seem like mild heresy, but Facebook presents a couple of challenges. One is that it demands attention. For your Facebook presence to be meaningful, you need to remain involved within the ongoing interaction that Facebook was created to carry out. That can be time-consuming. A more subtle challenge comes back to the simple point made above: People are different. Among Facebook users, they differ in the extent to which they are open to letting their business life into this space. In fact, among manufacturing decision-makers I’ve spoken to who use Facebook, I have yet to hear one express an active desire to use it for work-related information. Its users value it for personal reasons instead—keeping up with family or staying connected with college friends. At best, only some of these people are open to mixing the space with work. Others are not.

My own Facebook use is slight. Thus, my view might be slanted (see the first sentence of this article). That said, I don’t see Facebook as a good starting point for your business’s use of social media. Maybe Facebook will follow, but start instead with the recommendations above.