Yes, Chris Brogan, Social Media Can Save a Local Business

This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

Back in January, new-media marketing maven Chris Brogan (@chrisBROGAN) asked whether social media could save a business. In the face of the TARPconomy, He was hoping to help keep a Peabody, Mass., sandwich shop open. He wasn’t successful. Last month, however, a local Chicago comic shop in economic distress had much better luck when reaching out to a loyal online following.

Near the end of the first week of November, Shawn King (@sparkycandance), owner of Evil Squirrel Comics in the the far-north Rogers Park neighborhood, realized he’d made a careless business banking error months before that had now led to compounded fees and a surprise shortfall in funds. How much of a shortfall? Not enough to close the shop down immediately, but King tells me he feared he would have to choose between honoring November and December subscription commitments to his customers and paying rent. And without honoring subscription commitments, no comic shop can keep its customers for long.

Instead of begging the bank, the quick-thinking King held a deeply discounted two-day weekend sale starting Saturday, November 7. Then, in an example of old-school social media, he papered the neighborhood with flyers announcing the sale. And then he turned to Evil Squirrel’s online followers.

He posted a plea for weekend business to the Evil Squirrel Facebook group that fessed up about the banking error, and rebroadcast his plea to customers following his personal Twitter account. By the time Evil Squirrel closed for business on Sunday evening, the shop had made twice its normal weekend receipts thanks to a steady crowd of customers responding to the online call for help. That and some angel loans from King’s friends kept the shop afloat and the subscriptions safe.

“We’re really more than a comics store,” said King when I spoke to him by phone shortly before Thanksgiving. “We’re a community center. A lot of neighborhood people hang out here. I wanted to make sure that wouldn’t change.”

Why was Evil Squirrel’s experience different from that Peabody sandwich shop’s? Likely because King has been cultivating his store’s online community carefully and for a long time. Social-media watchers regularly warn businesses that building loyal followings on Twitter and Facebook requires real, thoughtful, and consistent work. (See for example these articles on the matter from Business Week, Ragan.com, and right here on Chicagosphere.)

Shawn King did that work, and Evil Squirrel’s survival is proof that taking your business’s social media seriously can reap unexpected–and unexpectedly vital–rewards. So the answer to Brogan’s question in this case, at least, is yes, social media can help save a local business. But only to the extent that a business has already helped itself to social media–and most importantly, cultivated a community of friends. So go reach out and tweet someone, dear Chicago small business owner.

A plea for help won’t carry very far if there’s no one around to retweet it.

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