Even with its reputation for warmth and Midwestern friendliness, metro Grand Rapids apparently is still learning how to be social.
That's the conclusion of several local practitioners of the tools of social media: Twitter, Facebook, My Space, LinkedIn and other online networks. But while West Michigan isn't breaking new ground in social media, a good number of people here are using the new channels of communication effectively to further their agenda -- be it higher sales in business, raising the profile of their organization or simply gathering everyone together to act like zombies.
Using social media can turn out to be much like conversations with family members around the dinner table at a Thanksgiving feast: it all depends on who you are talking to and what you are saying. Your mother wants to know that you are healthy and eating well; your younger brother or sister will snicker at a whispered joke about Uncle Joe's bad toupee.
But morning talk radio host Todd Chance doesn't use his Facebook page to inform listeners whether he had bacon for breakfast. To him, the social networking tool is a way for fans to catch the buzz on upcoming events and to dig deeper into topics discussed on his 105.3 HOT-FM (WHTS) show.
His dietary decisions don't turn out to be the best food for thought. Enter what Chance calls the "business branding" side of interactive Web communication.
"I'm trying not to put personal posts up there," says Chance, 33, host of the Todd Chance Radio Show . His Facebook page has amassed a significant following since its launch last year, boasting more than 3,100 fans. "I use Facebook as a marketing tool for my brand. For me, it's an extension of the on-air product."
"If you don't have a Web site, people think you must be fly-by-night or a disreputable company," says Daniel Estrada, 25, president of aimWest, a nonprofit professional organization that "supports and promotes the growth of the interactive and technology industries" based in West Michigan. "The same thing is happening with social media. It used to be a select few people had a Twitter account or a Facebook fan page, (but) if you don't have Twitter or Facebook, you're sort of the odd man out."
To respond to the growing interest in social media, aimWest is sponsoring its own event called the 2009 Midwest Social Media Confab today at the JW Marriott Grand Rapids that discusses the latest developments. The event is to feature discussions such as "Pimp Your Profile," along with others focused on online networking and how social media can boost collaboration. Founded about nine years ago, the Grand Rapids-based group has grown to about 300 members.
Estrada says aimWest programs are no jargon-heavy "geek conventions," though he uses the term with much love. He also is president of D.C. Estrada LLC, a firm specializing in regulatory and data security issues in the information technology field. "(aimWest) members are interested in the application of technology and how technology affects business," Estrada says. "Our discussion follows along those lines -- it's not technical in nature."
West Michigan is catching up to social networking trends and shedding its resistance to change, Estrada says. Still, a number of people still see the tools as "a way to waste time at work" or "something college students use."
"We are reluctant to change the way we do business here," he says. "We're reluctant to change, period.
"I think that's a cultural characteristic of West Michigan. I don't think people recognize that change is the foundation of innovation in progress, and a corollary to that is we're very risk-averse."
Estrada said his organization didn't see area businesspeople truly embrace social networking tools until late 2008. He pointed to older users who now log onto Facebook in droves. The site says its fastest growing demographic is comprised of those 35 and older. "We really couldn't have talked about social media in a meaningful way five years ago," Estrada says.
Measuring in Cyberspace
Chance says his page is useful in gauging listeners' interest in promotional events via comments and other responses. It gave a good, early indication how his station's "New Moon" premiere party slated for Nov. 20 at Celebration! North would be received. The event is tied to the release of the second film in the "Twilight" novel series.
"It's a good idea floater," says Chance, whose main demographic is women ages 18 to 49. "I think as a business, it'd just be silly not to be taking advantage of free advertising for your brand."
Similarly, negative feedback serves as a measure of ideas that might need to be canned. The response is more immediate than waiting for phone calls to trickle in, he says. "If it's too much, they'll sign off -- they'll de-friend," Chance adds.
While some look to social media and Web offerings as a supplement, others look to capitalize on them as their sole venture. Josh Depenbrok, 29, owner of local Web site GRNow.com, wanted to give area residents a more extensive resource for goings on than what he thought was previously available.
The Calvin College alumnus launched the site in 2005 after he couldn't find a job immediately and dipped his toes into real estate. Back then it was primarily a restaurant directory, but its scope grew as Depenbrok added more Grand Rapids oriented material.
The site now features copious listings of events, restaurants, nightlife hotspots and other information. October was GRNow.com's best month in its history, drawing 135,000 visits and 2.3 million page views, Depenbrok says. "Fortunately everything is trackable," he says. "You can find out what's popular and what everybody is clicking on."
Those who want real-time updates can join GRNow.com's 6,100-plus Facebook fans or track developments on Twitter, with more than 1,800 following event news there. "This definitely is a full-time job," Depenbrok says.
The early GRNow.com days saw Depenbrok chasing down potential advertisers and trying to convince them that online banners and blurbs were an effective, cost-saving way to get the word out. That's changed. Interested advertisers need only look at GRNow.com's social network following to see what they could for their buck. More difficult is assessing the impact of a highway billboard on revenue, Depenbrok says.
"People are looking for bargains," he says. "They don't have $6,000, $8,000, $10,000 to spend on radio or billboards anymore. It's a very cheap way to get the word out to a lot of people."
New media, new Grand Rapids
Depenbrok and Estrada conclude from their experience that print media will continue to decline as the primary source of information both from news and advertising standpoints. Newspapers and other publications don't seem to have a solution to "turn things around," Depenbrok says. And younger marketers with different expectations are taking the advertising helm.
"Our generation is much less interested in the one-way-content delivery method than we are in the two-way-content delivery method that the Web allows," Estrada says. "Gen Y folks are expecting content to be delivered in the ways that they want it to be delivered."
Depenbrok also points to a new wave of creativity sweeping Grand Rapids as integral to his site's success. Events such as ArtPrize and Rob Bliss' Zombie Walk and Sidewalk Chalk Flood are inspiring previously untapped pockets of fun seekers. They're transforming the city from "Bland Rapids" to "Grand Rapids," he says.
"People just really are looking for stuff to do," Depenbrok says. "There's a lot of energy downtown.
"It's such a draw for so many different types of people now."
Aaron Ogg talks to politicians, party store owners, himself, kids, leaders of big corporations and the unemployed and writes about them. His byline most often appears in The Grand Rapids Press.
Todd Chance, host of the Todd Chance Radio Show (3)
Daniel Estrada, president of aimWest (2)
Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved