Social media is essential in this day and age. There’s no denying that. Whether it be to keep in touch with longtime friends and family members, relay an important piece of information or develop potential business relationships, the range of platforms available makes almost anything possible nowadays.

In regard to business, social media has become an entirely new beast. Increasingly prevalent and almost vital to the success of a business today, especially for up-and-coming companies, this form of communication is changing the way people act, convey information and conduct business.

To learn more about the effects social media has had on businesses within the industry, TILE spoke with a trio of professionals from different companies, particularly about how the technological turnaround has affected their progress and success, as well as their future plans.

“Social media is an essential tool for marketing in today’s digital age, especially for businesses like Walker Zanger,” said Pat McIntosh, national social media coordinator and branch manager at Walker Zanger’s San Francisco office. “Our products are so visually engaging that they lend well to social platforms and allow us to organically connect with our customers on a more personal level.”

“Social media should be a component in any integrated marketing program,” added Irene Williams, owner and principal of Msg2Mkt, LLC, a digital marketing and public relations firm. “It’s a fundamental means of connecting with customers. All popular social platforms hold merit and should be considered in the marketing mix for most businesses in our industry.”

Williams, who has 18 years of experience in the tile, flooring, interior design and building products industries, detailed the most popular outlets, and how some provide more benefits than others. “Instagram is presently the fastest growing platform for my clients in terms of follower acquisition and it’s where I’m tracking the most vibrant engagement — “engagement” defined as people liking, commenting, tagging and sharing social posts,” she explained. “Because it’s a mobile platform, it can be more challenging to track how activity on Instagram leads to further interaction, as it offers limited means for sharing web page links that inspire click-throughs. Still, there’s no doubt this visual social network is beneficial in the marketing mix.

“Beyond the action on Instagram, Houzz and Pinterest consistently prove to be highly effective in driving traffic to websites — and that’s extremely valuable, as all strategic marketing should ultimately inspire people to take action by submitting their contact information to stay in touch with the brand, requesting more information, or coming into the showroom to make a purchasing decision,” Williams went on to say. “Facebook remains a strong driver to websites, as well. With so many active daily users, the potential to reach customers is great. However, it’s important to note that Facebook is structured to perform best for businesses that invest in paid campaigns using the site’s small business promotional tools.”

McIntosh agrees that Houzz and Facebook seem to be two platforms businesses gravitate towards the most. “Because our brands and products are so visual, Facebook, Houzz and Instagram have been strong platforms for Walker Zanger,” she said. “Each platform has a different user base, so we strategically target differing audiences for separate goals, whether it is CTR (Click Through Rates), engagement, video views, reviews of product, etc. All platforms have value for our business.”

“For MSI, Houzz is a natural complement to our business since its core community consists of trade professionals and homeowners who are in various stages of designing or remodeling homes,” added LaMia Florence, marketing associate for M S International, Inc. (MSI) in Orange, CA, a three-year Houzz member. “With a more targeted and engaged audience, it’s the perfect place for us to make connections. Between comments, direct messaging, discussion threads and reviews, we’re able to build our reach and following in a way that’s unique to any other platform. Houzz has become an integral part of our social strategy.”

Houzz takes over the market

With Facebook established a dozen years ago, the appeal isn’t as great as newer platforms, such as Houzz. The seven-year-old platform, which boasts “a new way to design your home,” features 10 million interior design photos and decorating ideas, while offering the ability to buy home decor and connect with local professionals for assistance. With more than 40 million monthly visitors, Houzz has become the “go-to” site for the architecture and design community.

“For members of the tile and stone industry, the appeal is obvious: Houzz users are squarely in-market for our products,” explained Michael Epstein, vice president of marketing for Artistic Tile in Secaucus, NJ. “Houzz has been useful. It gives us a highly visible portfolio of work and generates a large quantity of impressions and engagement. It’s also a strong referrer to our website.

“Houzz is different from other social networks in that it is more highly focused on interior design and renovation, and allows links out to websites and also links internally (within its own network) to product information,” he went on to say. “Their advertising opportunities are well-developed and they have an in-network sales channel as well. Their reporting is robust and their team is eager to work with advertisers to set up and optimize their content, and they have a strong following in the interior design community. It’s an important channel for us, without question.”

McIntosh also believes Houzz is the perfect platform, since it provides so many local benefits. “It is a perfect platform for companies to connect with industry professionals and homeowners, nourishing potential and current brand ambassadors, and gaining exposure to key customers and clients,” she said. “Houzz’s ‘Ideabooks’ give businesses the opportunity to collaborate directly with consumers, creating their dream space and communicating design ideas. Overall, Houzz allows businesses to directly target and interact with home remodeling professionals and members of the design community, many of which are already looking for your company’s products.”

Florence has also found that Houzz is incredibly useful with connecting professionals and homeowners. “We now have the opportunity to reach homeowners at key stages in their buyers’ journeys,” she said. “The platform has also proven quite valuable in identifying and connecting with our brand fans and enthusiasts — trade professionals that love and prefer working with our products — and by allowing us to test a new distribution channel with the Houzz Marketplace.”

Williams, who represents several Houzz members, piggybacked Epstein and McIntosh’s comments. “Houzz’s strength is that it attracts users who are in some stage of making decisions about improving their homes,” she explained. “The likelihood of capturing qualified leads is strong. It’s a ‘fish where the fish are’ scenario for businesses; cast some lines on Houzz and you have good chances in hooking some potential customers ready to take action. The figurative ‘casting of lines’ means that businesses need to maximize and optimize their Houzz profiles: complete all sections of the profile, fill it up with project photos and tag those photos so they’re easier for customers to find, create Ideabooks, answer questions users post and so on.

“I’ve worked with clients who’ve had great success on Houzz without spending a dime, as well as clients who’ve found it worthwhile to invest dollars for paid placements to ensure they rank high in search results,” Williams added. “No matter what, it’s advisable to create a Houzz business profile, nurture its content and see its potential as part of the marketing mix.”

The pros and cons

Since the Internet can be accessed from virtually anywhere in the world, social media has the upper hand in regard to its audience. One of the biggest pros of the powerful tool is the ability to reach any and every desired audience, according to Epstein. “You are able to reach an extremely broad audience and set specific criteria for that audience in a way that transcends traditional print, radio and TV advertising,” he said.

“Big and broad as the social world may be, businesses can really benefit from the ability to target people in specific geographic locations, who meet select demographics, have certain interests or even those attending unique events,” added Williams. “For example, Houzz was developed as a platform expressly to connect businesses with local clientele. Sure, it’s now grown to accommodate other types of commerce, but at its core, it’s still a regional resource finder. Anytime social media can help cut through the clutter to make directly, meaningful connections both business and consumer, it’s really done its job.”

Aside from the broad reach, Epstein also believes social media outlets allow companies to craft a message and develop a voice — all while creating several points of engagement for clients. “They become a major component of your brand identity — your public face — and have enormous positive potential,” he said.

“Not only can we see audience response right away just by watching engagement on social posts, but we can also access actionable stats and data very quickly that can help to inform our next marketing moves,” said Williams.

“Social media offers limitless potential for creativity and the freedom to directly connect online with customers,” explained McIntosh. “It also allows businesses to reach a wider audience, interacting in real time. This helps organically build consumer relationships, affecting brand loyalty in a positive way. Through social media, businesses can humanize and add personality to their brand, differentiating themselves from the competition and turning one-time customers into lifelong fans.

“An open pathway of communication with customers also opens the door for real-time negative feedback,” she added. “Businesses need to be able to manage and respond to feedback quickly and honestly, using it as an opportunity to build positive consumer relationships.”

While social media does present a myriad of benefits, the upkeep required is a major downside for many businesses. “It’s time consuming to use social media strategically and effectively,” said Williams. “There’s no ‘off’ button for it and audiences are using it all the time, so there needs to be someone on the ready to post, interact and monitor activity almost constantly.

“Some may say it’s a pro that social media is ‘free to use,’ but that’s a false notion,” the marketing guru went on to explain. “Sure, any business can have profiles on social platforms at no charge, but it does take time, planning, strategy and business intelligence to use well. It can be a big misstep to relegate management of social media to entry level staff members simply to contain costs, when those staffers may not yet understand the nuances of customer communications, brand messaging and overall marketing goals.”

Epstein has observed the same thing, since customers expect different things from each platform. “Content creation, curation and copywriting become full-time jobs,” he said. “If you’re doing social media poorly, the contrast with your competitors will be obvious and negative.”

Despite the maintenance required for the efficacy of social media, with all of the networks available today, it’s easy to establish an online presence. However, Williams believes the industry is only going to keep growing, offering professionals a tidbit of advice to stay ahead of the technological curve. “Next up for consideration will be SnapChat,” she said. “For our industry, this platform is still in its fledgling stage, but I suggest businesses set up their accounts now so they’re ready when tide turns this direction.”