When the World Wide Web was new in 1991, businesses around the globe started to use its infinite scope and size to promote themselves. As with any new technology and marketing concept, the idea caught on slowly before really picking up speed. Twenty years later, businesses are using a new tool on the Web to differentiate themselves from competitors and strengthen relationships with customers and suppliers alike.

Social media sites have been around for more than a decade. What began as a way to stay in touch with friends via your own personal space on the Web gradually grew into an effective method to market a business and interact with customers as well. The best part about social media is that it's available to everyone, it's free to use and it offers valuable word-of-mouth advertising. For a relationship-based business such as rental, social media sites offer a new way to cultivate relationships with new customers and maintain relationships with current ones.

Determining whether social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn are a viable communication channel for a rental business depends in part on the company's customer demographics. How well do you know your customers?

“Social media is about building relationships by engaging in ‘two-way’ communication and having meaningful conversations,” says Melissa Einfrank, public relations account manager for Lancaster, Pa.-based Godfrey. “In order to have those relevant conversations, it's important to understand how your customers consume social media.”

Ask rental customers about their social media habits and preferences. Find out if they are active users of social media sites, and if so, which ones. Are they using social media sites to follow other suppliers to their businesses? Asking a few questions will yield some ideas for how and where your rental business can reach potential customers and improve interaction with current ones.

While the jury is still out on the financial impact a social media presence can have on a rental business, the advantages it provides to building upon customer relationships is tough to deny.

“In our three months on Facebook and Twitter I've been really surprised at how fast your social network can grow,” says Chris Litke, marketing manager for The Cat Rental Store, Edmonton, Alberta. “With simply posting once a day or once every couple of days we have garnered more followers than I expected. The question that we are trying to answer is: ‘Will being involved in social media help increase rentals?’ The answer to that remains to be seen, but I'm sure it can't hurt.”

Social media offers a vast network of connections to others in the industry, whether it be customers, suppliers or end user/operators. For instance, if a rental company is following its equipment suppliers on Twitter and Facebook to stay abreast of the latest promotions and product launches, they can Re-Tweet and re-post the information for their companies' followers to discover. Users can then add new connections based on the common interests of followers in their network and the suppliers and customers they follow. Rental businesses can stay in touch with their equipment suppliers, use the information they learn to pass along to their own rental customers, all while keeping them engaged in their rental business and building upon existing relationships.

“We are extremely satisfied with the momentum we've created in the past few months, mainly with the interaction between some of our company news postings and customers,” says Will Levett, webmaster and social media administrator for Wagner Equipment Co., Aurora, Colo. “For example, we posted information about the launch of the CAT vocational truck at ConExpo on our social media sites, which was followed and re-posted numerous times by our customers.”

Twitter and Facebook are a good place for a rental business to start the social media experiment. Both sites are accessible by mobile applications via devices such as Smartphones and iPads and are designed to be easy to use and monitor. To become familiar with the ins and outs of Facebook and Twitter, experienced users suggest that rental company personnel consider creating personal accounts first and then once they feel comfortable and confident, create accounts for the business.

A rental company can determine the type of content it wants to post on social media sites based on its own business objectives and customer feedback. Bear in mind, rental customers are looking to social media sites to find news and information about both the personality of the company and the equipment in its rental fleet. Links to OEM-created how-to videos on YouTube make it easy when a customer needs a refresher on how to operate or troubleshoot the machine they rented. Customers may also follow social media sites to learn about special deals, discounts or events held by the rental company.

“I think that all of the social media outlets have some merit — it's using them effectively that makes the difference,” says Lynette Von Minden, public relations counsel for Lincoln, Neb.-based PR firm Swanson Russell. “For example, Twitter is great for providing quick product information and links to videos on YouTube that demonstrate how a piece of equipment works, or even just fun videos like JCB's Dancing Diggers that help to build a brand. Rental companies on Twitter can Re-Tweet this stuff so that it reaches their customers — it's kind of like how a product moves through the marketing channel from manufacturer to end user.”

On the flip side, equipment suppliers follow the social media presence of rental businesses to keep their finger on the pulse of the construction industry as a whole — what kinds of projects are going on, what types of equipment are trending in the rental channel, and what are end rental users saying about the equipment after the rental experience? There is much to be learned with this communication method, and endless candid tidbits of information shared back and forth on social media sites offer tremendous value to all participants. There is still the notion that social media is a mindless activity where people share what they had for breakfast that day, but growth statistics show it is becoming more widely accepted as a means to communicate meaningful information.

According to Econsultancy.com, a digital marketing blog that tracks social media statistics year-on-year, Facebook, which reported 350 million users in January 2010, now has in excess of 500 million active users just a little more than a year later. Twitter, it reports, had 75 million user accounts in January 2010, resulting in 27 million Tweets per day. Now the company has more than 175 million user accounts resulting in 95 million Tweets each day — a 250-percent gain year-over-year.

“Social media is also cost effective,” says Stew Gregory, manager of Manchester, N.H.-based Reliable Equipment. “In only a few minutes we can send a Facebook post or Tweet and avoid traditional printing costs, mailing costs as well as save time.”

‘Follow’ the leaders

Many rental companies interviewed by RER say they started experimenting with social media sites hoping to connect more meaningfully with customers. For Wagner Rents, the initial objective was to connect with construction site developers and landscaping companies, but it soon broadened its scope to include a wider range of its customers.

“Our goal is to interact with customers and potential customers who use these social media outlets to look for breaking news and relevant information pertaining to their industry,” says Levett. “We are also posting monthly promotions specifically benefitting these industries. By not solely posting advertisements we hope that our customers view our social media pages as a place to connect with Wagner Rents, and not just our company pushing products.”

Like Wagner, Lakeland, Fla.-based Linder Industrial Machinery uses social media to communicate with customers and with employees too, noting that Facebook is both an excellent venue to educate people in the industry on the company, its products and its value proposition, and to share and promote contests and campaigns the company sponsors internally and externally.

San Diego-based Hawthorne Cat uses Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, to build brand awareness, generate sales and leads, to offer customer support, provide information such as employment opportunities, and to deliver news to its customers and followers. Though it sees the process of building up its social media presence as slow, Hawthorne is satisfied that it will continue to gain followers as customers look more to the company's social media content for industry news and customer support.

“It is an undeniable fact that the upcoming generation is heavily using social networks to answer questions and get advice,” says Carolyn Mitchell-Voss, Hawthorne Cat senior marketing and communications coordinator. “Hawthorne Cat must have a presence in these outlets to effectively reach a diversity of demographics.”

Mississauga, Ontario-based SMS Rents started using social media with the goal of reaching out to current and potential customers with news, sales and promotions, but found that there are secondary benefits such as improving communications with suppliers, peers and to source information for the business. “We use social media to reach anyone in our industry as well as to learn of anything new that is happening in the industry — be it news from suppliers, customers or competitors,” says Yamen Aldajani, senior marketing analyst. “It's a one-stop newsstand.”

Shepherdsville, Ky.-based Nu-Way Rental & Sales' owner Steve Darnell finds social media to be a great help in providing a higher level of customer service, noting that it motivates employees to do a better job. Employees don't want to be the subject of a post or Tweet pointing out poor customer service. “Social media is a double-edged sword, do wrong and you'll feel its thrust,” Darnell says. “Social media use is encouraged at our firm. It's the ultimate in word-of-mouth advertising. Always greet your audience every day, offer them interesting content — don't just sell them.”

Volvo Rents uses its social media presence to promote the company's widespread community involvement to its customer base, establishing a common human thread beyond the day-to-day business relationship. “Social media is about establishing relevance,” explains Nick Mavrick, vice president of marketing for Asheville, N.C.-based Volvo Rents. “For us it's mainly about community involvement. We're not just presenting our business, we're presenting our hearts.”

Cultivating deeper relationships with customers via social media establishes a trusted context for the company to announce other events and promotions. Several rental companies RER interviewed reported success with Facebook- or Twitter-exclusive promotions, such as 10-percent off a next rental.

For rental businesses that depend heavily on their website to drive rentals, a strong social media presence can help increase its SEO (search engine optimization) rankings, a method Internet search engines employ that uses relevant key words to determine where a company's website falls in a search on sites such as Google or Bing.

“Linder Industrial Machinery launched a new website last year and Facebook is a good way to route people to this new site,” says Michelle Fain, marketing manager - construction & utility equipment. “Facebook is also a convenient way to follow our suppliers to see any new products, programs or advertisements they are implementing.”

Reliable Equipment views social media as an additional method to provide customers with the information and answers they need in the shortest amount of time possible. “We believe that time means everything,” says Gregory. “There is nothing as valuable as someone's time. When customer's call they need the answers now. Anybody can get a correct answer, but if you can respond quicker and more efficiently, the time we save [them] is the difference between Reliable Equipment and our competitors.

“We use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for real-time information about products we have in stock as well as industry news. We do real-time updates from rental shows, equipment demos and jobsites. We post videos and pictures from those shows/events to keep our customers informed.”

‘Like’ us

As previously mentioned, connecting rental customers to information about the equipment and products in a rental company's fleet is another advantage to having an active social media presence. By following its equipment suppliers on its own social media sites, a rental business can be the direct link to that valuable information for its customers.

“I think one of the biggest mistakes that companies make on social media is to only talk about themselves,” Von Minden says. “They don't exist in a bubble, and neither do their customers. Acknowledging that fact shows a genuine interest in their customers and helping them do their jobs better rather than just an interest in selling your product.”

Visit almost any OEM's website and you will find the Twitter, Facebook and YouTube icons directing you to their social media pages. Equipment providers share a common goal in their use of social media — accessibility to the industry.

“Within the rental industry, it's about reaching contractors and rental owners to offer them greater access to products and tools we provide to help them do more every day,” says Dan Roche, Briggs & Stratton marketing manager for commercial engines. “It's about helping them get more out of their business by being efficient and effective. Social media helps us expand awareness of products and services by making them easier to find and available to a wider audience.”

Other equipment manufacturers such as Terex Corp. and Husqvarna Construction Products also use their social media presence as an avenue to reach out to and encourage feedback from distributors, customers, contractors and operators, hoping to share information they can use in making equipment purchase decisions or rental equipment recommendations; keeping machines up and running, and sharing tips that can help their business partners succeed.

“We want to engage with our customers as true partners,” explains Mike Bazinet, director, corporate communications & public affairs, Terex Corp. “We're also interested in finding out what our customers are doing on the jobsite, what they're saying about their businesses and in whatever news is buzzing around the industry. We really value the two-way communication afforded by social media versus traditional advertising.”

And the forum for feedback that social media provides benefits OEMs by giving them a direct line of communication from the end users of their equipment, including users in the rental channel. All of this open interaction leads to new equipment that is better engineered for its customers. “While providing contractors and rental owners greater access to products and information, social media offers an opportunity to engage in a ‘discussion’ that can enhance our understanding of their business,” says Roche. “These insights and themes can, at times, be incorporated into larger-scale research efforts for further investigation or validation.”

Many manufacturers have developed YouTube channels where they post informational and instructional video clips as a means to engage customers, showcase new products and enhance education and training opportunities. YouTube clips also provide an additional medium to introduce customers to the company culture, offering a spoonful of personality beyond traditional advertising interaction.

“Our YouTube channel is an outlet we use to share videos with our customers,” says Kristen Gurick, marketing communications specialist, Godwin Pumps. “Currently, these videos include footage from a force main repair project in a busy Rhode Island town, a demonstration of one of our largest signature products — the CD500M Dri-Prime pump — and a tour of the newest building at our southern New Jersey headquarters.”

Software provider RMI Corp. uses two YouTube channels — one for marketing and one for training. The marketing channel features demonstrations, company information and other related videos. The second YouTube channel hosts RMI's training videos. “This simplifies the training process for our customers with the added benefit that prospective users may also visit our training site and learn how our Advantage software can streamline their day-to-day processes,” explains Brittany Tripp, marketing specialist, RMI Corp. “Our use of these resources is not to directly sell our product. It's about contributing to the rental industry and learning about the changing conditions to ensure our software meets those demands.”

Update your ‘status’

Years ago the question rental companies were asking was whether or not to develop a website to market and grow the business. Today most rental companies realize the value of a web presence, and the latest question being asked is whether or not to extend that presence to social media. For rental companies that are considering engaging in social media there are a number of lessons to be learned from industry peers and seasoned public relations experts.

One tip marketing specialists agree on is: Be social. Don't overdo your social media presence with too much blatant advertising. Public relations specialist Von Minden recommends not being extremely promotional with social media content. It may be a form of advertising, but it's not the appropriate forum for selling equipment and services directly.

“Instead we recommend creating a social media content calendar that includes a variety of categories — products, tools & resources and industry news, for example,” Von Minden says. “When you map out a plan ahead of time, it's easier to make sure you're providing fresh, engaging content that doesn't turn people off by constantly asking them to buy something.”

If a rental business adds a new machine to its fleet, rather than just touting it as “new” and “for rent” on the company's social media sites, it can use the forum to point out a particular solution the new item can offer its customers. “For example, if fuel prices are high, we might spotlight the fact that everyone's feeling the pinch at the gas pump, and that's why this new machine from our client was developed — to offer the best fuel efficiency in the industry,” Von Minden explains. “We might close the post by asking what they're doing to cut back on fuel usage in their operations. In this way, you're starting a conversation and getting your point across about a major benefit of a particular product without coming across as being blatantly promotional.”

The social media bandwagon is getting full. As more people who grew up with the Internet come to the industry, and convenience and dependence grows with the greater use of mobile devices, more and more people have access to and are prone to use social media, according to Christina Schave, public relations specialist for Des Moines, Iowa-based Two Rivers Marketing.

In the information age, social media provides another channel for customers to connect and interact with a rental business. “It really builds an image and you can get some really good testimonials from it,” says Bryce Goodell, public relations specialist, The Promersberger Co., Fargo, N.D. “And that testimonial is right there on the page for all the fans and followers to see.”

Some detractors cite concerns that social media provides a forum for negative statements or questions about their businesses. Public relations experts, however, say it's better to know what your detractors are saying rather than burying your head in the sand.

“Social media gives you an opportunity to address quality or service issues out in the open, and that can actually cause people to gain respect for your company rather than lose it,” Von Minden says. “However this also means you have to be prepared to provide answers or feedback quickly, which requires developing a strategy up front. You don't want to waste a lot of time trying to find a person who can answer a question that was posted on Facebook. Social media is about immediacy, and people who are actively using social media aren't content to wait days to get their questions answered.”

Like any traditional relationship, maintaining a presence and updating communication on social media sites takes both time and effort. In fact, the time associated with maintaining social media sites it one of the top reasons businesses give for not creating them. Most social media users spend as little as one hour a week updating their sites and posting new content, and as they see results adjust the time investment accordingly.

“Companies that are successful with social media are agile (and operate with a real-time mindset), transparent and provide valuable content,” says Godfrey's Einfrank. “In addition, they are not ‘me centric’ companies, as in, they share relevant information about the world and the industry and don't always shout from the mountain tops about why they are so great. All of these are important factors to consider.”

Most of the rental businesses RER interviewed are already experimenting with social media sites and the overwhelming consensus is that the experience has been positive. Many of these companies cited plans to continue to invest time and resources into their efforts.

“Social media is here to stay,” says Nu-Way Rental & Sales' Darnell. “Some think it's a fad, i.e. MySpace, but only as much as radio and TV were fads when new, but are now incorporated into all we do. Formats come and go. I don't own a single 8-track anymore but I still listen to the same music on Mp3. I'm in my mid-40s and can't wait to see where this is in 20 years. I use the Internet for all my information needs — news to entertainment.”

Who's Who in Social Media?

Facebook

In case you haven't seen the film “The Social Network,” it's the Hollywood adaptation of the founding of Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg and others at Harvard in February 2004. Developed as a social utility to help people communicate more efficiently with friends, family and co-workers, the site has grown to include more than 500 million active users. Today users can “Like” pages to include updates from their favorite businesses, brands and service providers in their personalized News Feed. According to Facebook:

  • 50 percent of active Facebook users log on to the site in any given day
  • People spend more than 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook
  • The average user is connected to 80 community pages, groups and events
  • More than 30 billion pieces of content, including web links, news stories, blog posts, notes and photo albums are shared each month.
  • There are more than 200 million active users currently accessing Facebook through their mobile devices.
  • People who use Facebook on their mobile devices are twice as active on Facebook than non-mobile users.

Twitter

Twitter, introduced in 2006, describes itself as a real-time information network that connects its users to the latest information about what they find interesting. “Simply find the public streams you find most compelling and follow the conversations,” the site states. Twitter uses small bursts of information called Tweets to communicate shared content. Tweets must be no longer than 140 characters, but connected to each Tweet is a rich details pane that provides additional information, deeper context and embedded media. Users can tell their story within the Tweet, or use the Tweet as a headline and use the details pane to share the rest with photos, videos or other media content, the company says.

According to Twitter:

  • Twitter has more than 175 million registered users
  • More than 95 million Tweets are written per day

YouTube

Founded in February 2005, YouTube, with its slogan, “Broadcast Yourself,” is a distribution platform that allows billions of people to watch and share originally created videos, providing a forum for people to connect and inform others across the globe. The site is well suited to disseminating information created by anyone, including original content creators and advertisers alike. According to YouTube:

  • More than 13 million hours of videos were uploaded during 2010; 35 hours of video are uploaded every minute.
  • YouTube reached more than 700 billion playbacks in 2010.
  • More than 4 million people are connected and auto-sharing to at least one social network.
  • YouTube mobile gets more than 100 million views a day.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn, launched in May 2003, is focused on connecting the world's professionals. As of January 2011, LinkenIn counts executives from all 2010 Fortune 500 companies as members; its hiring solutions were used by 69 of the Fortune 100 companies as of Dec. 31, 2010. According to the company:

According to LinkedIn:

  • More than 100 million professionals are members worldwide.
  • Roughly one million new members join LinkedIn every week.
  • More than one million companies have LinkedIn Company Pages
  • LinkedIn represents a valuable demographic for marketers with an affluent and influential membership.