The prospect of being able to reach so many people has many companies all atwitter about using social media, somehow, to bond with customers.
We've heard a lot lately about the power of social media services like Facebook and Twitter to connect people, spread news and even influence world events. Tens of millions of people are signed up for one or more of these services that connect folks with shared interests or concerns.
When it comes to social media, Richfield-based Best Buy is an acknowledged pioneer. The consumer electronics giant has authorized thousands of employees to respond to customer questions posted on Twitter.
To drive home that point, the retailer has been airing a series of ads in which customers seek guidance from a stadium full of blue-shirted Best Buy employees. Viewers are told they'll find such employees on Twitter, for real.
Jason Parker is one of them; he answers customer questions via his computer or smart phone.
"They can send a tweet to Twelpforce, get an answer sometime during their workday, check it later and have the answer they need without having to invest any more time than it takes to type 140 characters," Parker said.
Social media's proponents in the business world say it's all about talking with people, not at them. Companies can cement customer relationships and better understand their customers, too.
"It's a great way to get plugged into what is going around you," Barry Judge, Best Buy's chief marketing officer, said. "We're doing it for more than the followers we've achieved. We're doing it to help start to change the orientation of customer service within this company and change how the way people think about us and our helpfulness. What we've done so far, we're just thrilled with."
Target, Best Buy's cross-town neighbor, is also bullish about social media. It's not on Twitter yet. That's coming. But Target's official Facebook page has over 500,000 fans.
They offer both kudos and criticism of Target. Some plead for Target to open stores in their towns. Others even post photos of cute kids in Target shopping carts.
Target has tapped those fans for input on matters such as improving the retailer's offerings in men's clothing.
Spokeswoman Leah Guimond said Target is still exploring what to do with social media.
"Social media in general is still something we are still exploring," Guimond said. "We [do] think it is a way for us to reach our guests and a way for us to have them connect with us in a different way, and Just this as we look to integrate it into more of our campaigns. It's definitely up there on the list of marketing tools."
General Mills is keen on social media, too. Through its MyBlogSpark network, the food company distributes product samples to hundreds of blogging moms. The moms' products reviews seem to be overwhelmingly favorable, generating valuable word-of-mouth promotion for General Mills.
Many other big Twin Cities companies are quite interested in social media, but they haven't made a big push so far.
Cargill, the agri-business giant, for instance, has about 300 followers on Twitter.
While individuals might join Twitter without giving it a second thought, companies are cautious. They worry about potential minefields, like impostors creating fake Facebook accounts or loose-lipped employees spilling corporate secrets.
Carol Russell, CEO of Russell Herder, a Minneapolis advertising agency, said top executives within a company often thwart efforts to embrace social media aggressively.
"The kind of comments that I hear are: 'We really want to do this. We want to do it well. But I just can't get my boss to look at this. They are afraid of it,'" Russell said.
Punch Pizza knows no fear when it comes to social media.
Punch uses Facebook and Twitter to keep in touch with thousands of dedicated patrons of its six local Neapolitan pizzerias. Punch often uses Twitter to publicize free pizza deals, counting on fans to pass on word of the offer to their friends, who'll pass it on to their friends.
"People actually do the work for you," John Puckett, a co-owner of Punch, said. "If they like our brand and like what we're doing with pizza, they'll help us spread the word. It is a very efficient way to market."
Puckett said he's given away thousands of pizzas and figures a freebie can turn someone into a lifelong paying customer.
If more companies succeed with social media, we can probably count on other business trying to cozy up with us online.