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    Credit: NICK ORABOVIC

Until 2011, Dolphin Pools & Spas in Phoenix relied heavily on print ads and used very little social media. Then came General Manager Kevin Woodhurst, who inverted the company’s strategy. Just 14 months later, business is up 65 percent.

Are Facebook and Twitter a panacea? Definitely not, Woodhurst says. He and others agree the jury is still out on the effectiveness of many social media sites, but they argue the benefits are undeniable.

“Putting your information on many social media platforms will help you share your message with more people,” says Sandi Frizzell, a national trainer who focuses on social media. “You don’t know which audience will find you, where, or at what time, so it’s important to use more than one site.”

Here are expert picks for the best social media options and strategies for how to use them effectively.

1. The pro choice

Social media isn’t just for marketing. It’s also a great way to connect with your professional peers.AI Connect is a great option for doing just that. (OK, we realize we may be a bit biased here. AI Connect is a social networking site provided by Aquatics International.) With 2,200-plus aquatics pros, the free network offers an instant way to solicit feedback or pose questions that only your peers can understand.

The best way to take advantage of AI Connect is to get active by diving into the numerous functions. Members can share information, questions and advice on discussions and blogs; share photos and videos; and find out about upcoming events.

Looking for more specialized info and connections? Try joining a group, such as LifeguardLink, which focuses on lifeguarding issues and ideas.

Additionally, the AI Connect site offers the latest industry news, links to Aquatics International articles, and aquatic-focused Twitter and Facebook feeds.

New features are being added regularly, including an exclusive monthly e-newsletter, launched in May 2012. The AI Connect e-newsletter updates members on the top discussions and previews industry headlines and breaking news ahead of AI Extra, the regular AI e-newsletter.

2. The 1,000-pound gorilla

With 450 million active users,Facebook has a larger population than the United States. If you use just one social-sharing site, most experts agree this should be it. “We build Facebook into everything we do,” says Pam Vinje, CEO of The Pool Marketing Site, which provides Internet marketing for the pool industry.

To use Facebook well, ask patrons to “like” your page as soon as they purchase a membership or sign up for a program. With more “likes,” people researching your facility are more likely to see a trusted friend among the group. Think of it as a modern take on referral marketing. Moreover, you can use satisfied clients’ testimonials on your page and in Facebook ads, which are inexpensive and can be highly targeted, down to a particular ZIP code. “With Facebook, your customers become your brand evangelists selling your product,” Vinje says.

The key with Facebook (and all social media) is keeping your site fresh. “People have such short attention spans that you must give them reasons to stay and come back,” Woodhurst says. “They won’t if it’s the same old stuff all the time.”

(Visit the Aquatics International Facebook page and view the latest postings. Feel free to like us!)

3. Small packages

You have all your other social media sites running smoothly and still have time? Don’t underestimate the value of Twitter. The small-bite site moves at a faster pace than other sites and allows users to share news, messages, videos, photos and information in tiny, 140-character “Tweets.”

Before you jump in, one word of caution: Be aware that this platform requires a greater investment of time on a regular basis to do it right. Twitter was designed for those who want quick updates at various times during the day. 

If you’re interested in exploring Twitter, you can start by following the Aquatics International Twitter feed@aquaticsintl. It offers the latest industry news and happenings, along with access to the AI editorial team.

4. The local social

Go to Google and search “pool” (or whatever term best describes your facility). The top results are probably all located locally. Are you on that list? If you are, do you have any reviews?

“Local search” is geographically based search results delivered using a computer’s IP address or a phone’s GPS. Results are further weighted based on the number of consumer reviews a business receives.

The first step? Get listed on the big players:Google Places, Yahoo Local and Yelp. Then ask trusted patrons to write reviews. “Having those testimonials online where the world can see them is huge,” Frizzell says. “If someone writes a good review, that’s like gold.”

5. The professional yelllow pages

LinkedIn isn’t the most active of all social media sites, but it serves an important (and too often overlooked) purpose.

“It’s the yellow pages of professionals,” Vinje says.

You might use LinkedIn to connect with potential employees, colleagues, partners or suppliers.

Make sure you have updated profiles for your firm and key staff. If time allows, ask others for recommendations to include with your profile. Also, to show you’re connected, you can join industry groups such as the Aquatics International LinkedIn group, which has 1,000-plus members.

6. Seeing is believing

Video is powerful and YouTube is one medium you'll want to get to know. YouTube is a free and easy-to-use platform for sharing originally created video.  It integrates nicely with Web sites and other social media, and has a vast audience.

“Some people think YouTube is just for silly videos,” Frizzell says. “But it’s actually one of the fastest-growing search engines, and it reaches a very different audience than other sites.”

As an aquatics professional you might produce videos that introduce your team, provide a tour of your facility, or teach a water safety lesson.

Honorable mention: Flikr is like YouTube for photos. When loading images onto your Website or Facebook page, it’s smart to drop them here, too. Add a description that includes your company name to boost your site’s search-engine ratings.

7. The next big thing

If you haven’t heard of Pinterest yet, you will soon. The fastest growing site, Pinterest is a “content curation” service that allows users to “pin” photos to “boards” that can be seen by their subscribers. The photos link back to their original location on the Web.

The site is being embraced by many visually driven operations (such as health clubs) and could be a logical fit for some in the aquatics industry. (Vist the Aquatics InternationalPinterest page.)

Honorable mention: Google+ is the latest social networking site, but it hasn’t reached critical mass. Don’t write it off, however. Google has very few failures to its name. Stake your claim now, but don’t invest too much time on the site …yet.