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BEFORE THE CORONAVIRUS pandemic, social media may have been just another useful member of your marketing toolkit … among many others.

Now, it is widely viewed as crucial to business resilience and fundamental to the way independent optical retailers and optometric practices communicate with customers and patients.

The pandemic taught the industry the importance of digital marketing and made it much harder to deny the importance of e-commerce and telehealth. It’s a message that marketing experts have actually been trying to get across to independent retailers for several years. According to Julie Gotz, chief marketing officer at Bruce Freshley Media, “For a lot of our clients, it’s an unknown or scary entity, or they don’t think it’s necessary. Unfortunately, it’s taken this crisis to show that everyone is moving online.”

Gotz says social media should be the top priority. “This is a time where everybody is on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram getting their information, and this is where they are shopping from. Everyone is tethered to their phones. Let people know in organic posts what kind of services you are offering. And reach beyond the followers on your page by paying for Facebook advertising.”

From there, make sure the people who see you can access your website fully, including making appointments and, if applicable, shop for frames, contacts and accessories, from their phone.

The pandemic forced retailers and service providers to change their messaging to a nervous public wary of spending and, especially in an eyecare context, nervous about interpersonal contact. But as economic confidence continues to return, social media’s unique ability to help business owners sell themselves and what they believe in is here to stay. André Savoie of High Level Thinkers Digital Marketing urges retailers to use social media to sell not just products and services, but to push “what they’re about and what they believe in and bond with the community in that way.” In other words, tell stories about what has made your customers happiest through the years and how you’ve put a smile on their faces. “Talking about that will get a lot of positive feedback and love. And at some point, they are going to want to buy.”

If you’re unsure about how to approach social media, start by thinking of it as a way to forge one-to-one connections. The pandemic has shown the genuine value to business owners of connection and authenticity. Andrea Hill of Hill Management Consulting urges her clients to “respond to every post, seek individual mini-conversations, host in-the-moment live events and get-togethers [online], and keep the connections alive.” Even when you’re not directly promoting or marketing, “People will remember how you made them feel,” with a well-crafted social media campaign.

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Ben Smithee, CEO of the Smithee Group, urges clients to invest in their brands and to create an “evergreen” branding campaign that will work now and later. “Think of your brand like Netflix or HBO,” he says. “Think in a series of content, not just pieces of content.” Most brands will run out of content quickly and run out of things to say, because they are solely product or service focused. Smithee believes brands that relate to their audience on a human level will win, and this message is particularly relevant in a post-pandemic world. Another factor to keep in mind is just how much bad or contentious news — political, economic, health-related — the public has had to deal with in recent times. In a world of negative headlines, consider messaging that is community focused, less filled with sales pitches, and that brings people together.

In a similar vein, Jennifer Shaheen, president of Technology Therapy, says it’s a natural time for retailers to embrace the full potential of the available platforms. “Start engaging and not just posting,” she says. “Start a dialog. Share original images of your products and focus on emotions and stories.” Pretend you’re having a face-to-face conversation. “Make sure when you are messaging people that you are thinking of them just as if they are in front of you. Use emojis and components of more casual language.”

And don’t forget to invite your followers to virtually browse your services and — if you have an online store — your frame inventory and keep your online catalogs up to date.
For those of you that have managed to build and/or maintain a loyal social media following over the past 18 months, you’ll be well placed to reap the rewards; those in tight markets may well have emerged with market share gained from those who stopped advertising. Shane O’Neill, vice-president of Fruchtman Marketing, said that during the 2008 downturn, clients that stayed the course came out better in the end. With things looking more positive economically, “Consumers will move forward with … planned purchases. So if you want to stay top of mind, e-commerce provides an opportunity to connect with your customers with online buying options.”

1. Move Beyond Boosting

“Yes, it’s really important to post to your page,” says Gotz. “But it’s pay to play… If you can find $1,500 or $2,000, put it toward a Facebook campaign. We can find out where people are shopping online, what their interests are, what their income is.” At Urban Eyecare, an optometric practice in downtown Phoenix, AZ, targeted digital ads and social media are a pillar of the marketing effort. Ads are aimed at the biggest industries downtown, as well as precise targeted marketing and remarketing through Facebook and Google. With permission, pictures of patients picking up their eyewear are used “as fuel for social media accounts,” says owner Dr. Jason Klepfisz.

2. Experiment

Aside from just posting on Facebook, explore Instagram Stories, TikTok and Instagram Reels, Instagram TV for longer video content, and Instagram and Facebook live streams to keep your audience engaged and informed. The goal, says Smithee, is to remain relevant and engaging. Dr. Inna Lazar at Greenwich Eye Care in Old Greenwich, CT, already had a well-tended Instagram, but realized she could make even better use of the platform and now combines her command of pop culture and talent for video making on Instagram Reels (basically IG’s answer to TikTok) to raise the bar on getting vital eye health info out to the masses. “Patients I was seeing in my practice had many questions,” she says. “‘What are floaters?’ ‘Why are my eyes watering?’ ‘Will glasses make my vision worse?’ ‘How can I help my kid with his or her myopia progression?’ This made me rethink and use my platform to educate the public, my followers, by creating short clips that are 15, 30 seconds long that hit the main points and answer the most-asked questions I encounter on a day-to-day basis in my practice.”

One of Dr. Inna Lazar’s eye health videos, made using Instagram Reels

One of Dr. Inna Lazar’s eye health videos, made using Instagram Reels

3. Use Dynamic Retargeting

Targeting can be taken a step further with dynamic retargeting or remarketing, which basically means retargeting website visitors with ads for products they viewed but didn’t purchase. By sharing the right products to the right person at the right time with dynamic ads, your conversion rates will increase and your image will improve in the eyes of your customers, who won’t be bombarded with options they’re not interested in. This can be done on both Facebook and Instagram.

4. Be Human

Humanize your practice by personally showing off your frame collection or exam room via YouTube or Facebook Live, or posting photos with detailed, personalized captions. Talk about how you started the company or recount favorite memories, says Smithee. Interview longtime customers about their favorite frames or talk to patients who personally benefited from treatment in some way and include an update on where they are now. Offer glimpses behind the scenes of your business, like how you’re continuing to deal with changes due to COVID, how you stay motivated, or even your favorite recipes. “We like to include pictures of people in their eyewear,” says Travis LeFevre at Krystal Vision in Logan, UT. “It helps people relate and see how many options there really are. We also show a lot of the behind the scenes of our frame making which you won’t see many other places.”

5. YouTube Is the New TV

Video offers more bang for the buck than other media, lowering cost-per-engagement, says O’Neill. And keep in mind that YouTube is not only a social media channel, but also the No. 2 search engine in the world and an option for ad spends, too, he adds. So, use your phone to create educational or topical videos. A perfect example is “Makeup and the Eye with Dr. Thomas,” in which Dr. Nytarsha Thomas from Visionelle Eyecare in Zionsville, IN, offers some dos and don’ts with her trademark wit in a three-minute video that has garnered hundreds of views in the past six months or so and earned the comment “Possibly…the funniest makeup video I’ve ever watched! We <3 you Dr. Thomas!!” from one viewer. And don’t forget to humanize your offerings: Let followers see you cooking or playing an instrument; show off your talents that have nothing to do with eyecare to connect with followers and fans. “We look at it as the new TV,” says O’Neill. This medium reaches more 18 to 49 year olds than any cable network.

Dr. Nytarsha Thomas offers viewers a lighthearted warning about the perils of unhealthy eye makeup on Visionelle Eyecare’s YouTube channel.

Dr. Nytarsha Thomas offers viewers a lighthearted warning about the perils of unhealthy eye makeup on Visionelle Eyecare’s YouTube channel.

6. Find A Local Influencer

Communications strategist Jen Cullen Williams urges independent retailers to find a local “micro-influencer,” defined as having between 2,000 and 50,000 followers. Start by researching eyewear or eyecare niches on digital platforms. Look for someone with a proven history of engaging with your target audience. Then send an email or direct message with a paid offer opportunity. Once an influencer accepts the offer, fine tune a contract and be clear about your rights to use images. Agree on when the campaign will begin and end, how it will be tracked and what you expect. Money doesn’t necessarily have to change hands, though; Carl Cameau Jr. at Hudson Spectacles (formerly Eyevolution Optique) in Nyack, NY, has for the past few years been posting photos of carefully chosen local restaurateurs and other biz owners from around the Hudson Valley on Instagram — fitted with eyewear from his collections — and through them expanding his reach and building a loyal, like-minded clientele. The influencers promote Hudson Spectacles by tagging and hashtagging. Some want glasses for free, but Cameau doesn’t believe in giving product away for a shout out. “That can add up quick if you are too fluid with your policy,” he warns. And he doesn’t ask for anything in return aside from the use of their image. “Everyone volunteered and I offer the images for each person to use for their social media as well.”

7. Reply with Aplomb!

On Instagram, reply to comments within one hour to boost your visibility while reminding customers that yes, they are communicating with a real person, says Erin Lashley, brand strategist at the Smithee Group. When you comment, use at least three words. Why? Bots that leave comments use emojis or one-word comments. But if you take the time to leave meaningful, thoughtful comments, Instagram will reward you with people seeing more of your content. For example, instead of just “nice” or “lovely,” say, “I love the way this frame suits your face.” In addition, if you direct-message someone, that person will become far more likely to see your posts in the future. Try sending voice memos to followers, too, like: “Thank you so much for following. I love what you’re doing. Tell me more about yourself.” Such an approach is memorable and can humanize you.

8. Run Tests

When trying to figure out what your audience likes, test your content organically first. It will have limited reach, but it will allow you to tailor it before you put money behind it. Take the time to outline the campaigns you want to run and figure out whom you want to target. Then you can allocate funds across a certain time period to those campaigns. If you do advertise via Facebook Ads Manager rather than boosting, you’ll be visible 24/7, says O’Neill, who suggests budgeting $500 to $700 per social-media advertising campaign or a minimum of $250. Your overall marketing spend should be 6% to 8% of gross revenue, he says. But even small outlays can pay off. MK Vision Center in New York has used Facebook Ads’ Location Targeting function to single out users within a 5-10 mile radius of the store — a healthy pool of potential customers when you’re located in downtown Manhattan — and a specific demographic that would be interested in the particular brand they are promoting. For a brand like Gucci, says optician Kaleena Ma, “We target by age — 30 to 50 years — and we set a daily budget not to exceed say $10 a day.” It costs MK $1 per day to reach 1,000 to 3,000 people and up to $15 a day to reach 6,600 to 19,000 a day.

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9. Get Staff Involved in Posting

To keep postings fresh, consider allocating each staff member a day of the week for which they are responsible for Facebook. Offering another strategy, Kaia Pankhurst, senior content strategist at Marketing4ECPs, says, “If you’re looking to launch a YouTube channel, task someone with owning it. Once you’ve given them that power, defer to them. Let them know what you want, and then trust them to make the right choices to get you there.” Younger team members in particular are a killer resource. “Our secret weapon is the young brains of our staff members who use social media. They work together to add images and content that they like to see and respond to on social media,” says Deb Jaeger, office manager at Eye Center of the Dakotas in Bismarck, ND. There are options online (many free, some with paid upgrade options) to help the designated team member spruce up your graphic design. “Canva is the master tool that has fooled everyone into thinking that I can do graphic design!” shares Tiffany Firer at Lifetime Eyecare in Jenison, MI.

10. … And Let Them Shine Online

Your staff can serve as a ready-made cast of characters that can help to humanize your social media posts and let your patients and the community see people they know or can relate to in your eyewear. It also boosts team spirit and can just be an excuse to have fun together. At Midwest Eye in Downers Grove, IL, fun is the point. “When I have time, I try to schedule posts. Other than that, just trying to include staff and create a fun post. Working on a roller coaster shot with staff in sunglasses currently,” says practice manager Pam Peters.

Team members in super hero mode at Midwest Eye. 

Team members in super hero mode at Midwest Eye.

11. Or … Just Go with A Pro

“We hired a social media person. We do quarterly planning and she runs with it,” shares Kristina Jordan of The Eye Site in Mishawaka, IN. If you don’t have the staffing resources or would just rather know it’s handled by an expert, sometimes outsourcing is the best option. “We hired a marketing person this month. Ahh, the shoulders relaxed just a bit,” Star Taylor of Richens Eye Center in St George, UT, told INVISION. Automated helping hands are also available. No one has time to be monitoring their socials all day every day, and there are tools available to make it easier for you. Dr. Cynthia Sayers at EyeShop Optical Center in Lewis Center, OH, gives a shoutout to Hootsuite, a social media management platform that uses a dashboard set-up and supports integration across various platforms. A number of patient engagement service companies offer social media solutions. “I use Eyecare Prime to reach out to patients after I create content,” says Dr. Sonja Franklin at Modern Eyes in Austin, TX.

12. Consider Each Platform

When you post to Instagram, for example, you can connect it to Facebook, but don’t automatically connect it to your Twitter feed because it doesn’t translate well and won’t repost the image or even most of the caption. Ideally, post to each platform directly. Says O’Neill: “Every social network has its own requirements and sizing for the ads to be displayed. If you don’t optimize your ad to the right specs, it might not reach its full potential for success.”

13. Show Off What You’re Good At

We’d like to illustrate this one by stepping away from the world of eyecare for a moment and offering a perfect example culled from the pages of INSTORE, our sister publication catering to jewelry retailers. Michael Moriarty, the resident social-media guru at his family’s jewelry store, Moriarty’s Gem Art in Crown Point, IN, produced a series of videos showcasing his dad’s expert gem faceting and other skills. When he made a video of a glowing hyalite opal that looked like kryptonite from the Superman comic books, Moriarty knew he had a hit on his hands. “I was holding it in my hand and moving it into daylight, which made it literally glow, and someone grabbed a small clip of that video and posted it on Reddit. It made the front page of Reddit and it really started rolling. It’s up to over 4 million views now.” Best of all, the videos help explain what Moriarty’s Gem Art is all about. “Our video will pop up, and if they are interested in buying, they go to our channel and see all our other products.” What skills do you have that might replicate that sort of eye-grabbing attention online? Share your craziest frame repair and watch it go viral!

14. Consider Google Search and Ad Words

Because larger retailers have had to move online, they are pouring more money than ever before into national Google search buys, and there’s no guarantee that a smaller store with a smaller budget will be able to compete there right now. It’s still worth researching though. How to begin? Bid on Google Ad extensions to boost your placement on Google search, says Cody Giles of The Smithee Group, because you want to be No. 1 on the search page. And if there are more places to click, people will have more reasons to choose your business first. From the Google search page, allow customers to make an appointment directly, add a promotion, add a location so viewers can see your physical location and then see your ad on Google maps. Add a phone number. You can track the number of people who have called directly from Google ads. If you fill up extensions, your Google listing can take up a whole screen without even showing your competitors. “I try to Google myself or my practice to see what pops up. We correct and update the most popular sites and off label sites, too,” says Dr. Robert Easton Jr. in Oakland Park, FL.

15. Start A Facebook Group

The tailored digital presence at Oxford Eyes in Orlando, FL, is extensive. To enhance relationships between its clients and industry reps, the shop created its own Oxford Eyes Insiders page on Facebook, which owner Verbelee Nielsen-Swanson describes as an “exclusive community of eyewear enthusiasts.” Reps from Blackfin, Lindberg, Lafont and elsewhere have joined. The store is also active on Twitter, Instagram, Vimeo and its blog, and has forged relationships with major social accounts that have since turned into clients and advocates, including local influencers, bloggers, stylists and businesses. Maui Jim asked to use Oxford Eyes’ social media photo on its website and high-profile brands regularly share Oxford Eyes’ posts. Local PR firm SIX The Agency helped develop the store’s social media and brand identity. Maintaining such a group requires a fair amount of admin work, because without you moderating it, people will inevitably start posting political things and arguing. But if you’re patient and attentive, the potential gain of huge numbers of free impressions a week can make it worthwhile.

The Oxford Eyes Insiders Facebook group started by Verbelee Nielsen-Swanson.

The Oxford Eyes Insiders Facebook group started by Verbelee Nielsen-Swanson.

16. Fine-Tune Your Photography

Producing high-quality photographs of your frame lines can give you a point of differentiation. Good photography doesn’t require a big outlay of time or money. Using an iPhone with an extra lens, a desktop studio and a lightbox can get amazing results. Spend an afternoon experimenting and take a look at products such as FourPro’s Studio4 Eyewear, a lightbox kit designed to take photographs of eyewear compatible with DSLR cameras as well as some smart phones.

17. But Don’t Get All Stuffy

At the same time, loosen up when appropriate. Don’t be afraid to use your smartphone for more casual or candid shots to give customers and patients a sense of how your eyewear looks in “real life.” Try to use your own content as much as possible and think about the models and the backgrounds you use. Stylized images featuring high-fashion types might be crowd-pleasing in New York or Los Angeles, but may not resonate with your own local crowd, says Savoie of High Level Thinkers, who is based in Louisiana. Clients want to shop local, you are local, so make sure you look local. Take a picture of a plant that’s blooming right now, that people will recognize as something local. Show people who look like those likely to walk in the door. Show diversity, particularly if you’re in a multi-cultural locale.

18. Photograph (or Video) New Arrivals

The team at Sports Optical in Denver, CO, have uploaded scores of brief videos to YouTube demonstrating new frame arrivals. It’s also a great way for them to get the word out about their proprietary technology that allows prescription lenses to be fitted into various top brands of sports and safety glasses and goggles.

Sports Optical in Denver, CO, routinely posts videos on YouTube announcing frame arrivals or new sports prescription lens offerings.

19. Get Right with Instagram

Ensure your content is tailored to the audience you are trying to reach. Instagram is about lifestyle, so what’s your brand lifestyle? Focus on lifestyle posts and leave generic white background product type posts for Facebook, O’Neill says. “Bring in your local community by incorporating popular restaurants, locations and events into your lifestyle posts.” Connect with your customers with brand association. Are your customers affluent? Then incorporate luxury frame brands into your product lifestyle posts. If you’re a rural optical retailer, for example, consider the brands or types of eyewear or eyecare locals need or relate to. Connect with people through the type of content you post.

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20. Create and Follow A Calendar

“I set an intention each month with my clients,” says Jacqueline Stone, founder of marketing consultancy Bubblegum and Duct Tape. “For example, try using ‘Love’ as your intention for February. What love stories could you share? What fun facts about Valentine’s Day could you provide? … You could also share some personal info in the stories feed about who and what you love. When you start tying your content to a central idea it is much more cohesive and it helps you share your expertise in a way that doesn’t feel phony or forced.”

21. Grow In Depth

Think about the depth of your reach rather than the width when growing your social media, says Erin Lashley, brand strategist for the Smithee Group. “Most retailers will say they want to grow their audience and get more followers. But it’s not just about the number of followers. It’s about depth of engagement. Take the 500 or 5,000 followers you have now and grow in deep conversation and your ability to engage them. The platform will reward you with width as you grow your depth. Phlanx.com is an engagement calculator that can determine your engagement rate. Sherry Morgan at Logan Eye Care in Lake Mary, FL, agrees. “Keep content to your brand. Don’t get caught up on everyone else’s channels and lose your identity copycatting,” she advises.

22. Fence Them In

Geo-fencing around your store won’t work if it’s closed or if traffic is down, but it’s possible to target users at home and serve them custom banner ads, based on your target demographics, such as zip codes, household income, marital status, etc., according to Freshley Media.

23. Try A Virtual, Interactive Event

Logan Eyecare in Lake Mary, FL, found Facebook useful for keeping patients engaged during COVID-19. “Our first event during COVID was a live Instagram/Facebook event,” says practice concierge Sherry Morgan. Followers who RSVP’d were hand-delivered a happy hour treat, although anyone could join. When last INVISION checked in with Morgan, a Tom Ford virtual event was in the pipeline. Zoom has become popular since the pandemic, allowing users to talk with up to hundreds of participants. (It doesn’t have to be eyewear-related, though. Get a group of favored customers together for a virtual wine-tasting, for example. Google Hangout is another option to try.) One of the newest frontiers in social media interactivity is Clubhouse, an audio-only app launched last year that hosts live discussions, allowing users to communicate in voice chat rooms. One early adopter is Sandi Eveleth, an OD and eyecare marketing consultant who opened her own club on the app, the Eye Care Marketing Club. Her focus at the moment is B2B but she believes it’s only a matter of time before optometric practices start engaging patients on the app.

A virtual event with Maui Jim at Logan Eyecare.

A virtual event with Maui Jim at Logan Eyecare.

24. Last Word

We’ll give the last word to Dr. Adam Ramsey at Socialite Vision in Palm Beach Gardens, FL: “Social media is for people that want to be social. Don’t make it a job — have fun!”

Since launching in 2014, INVISION has won 23 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INVISION's editors at [email protected].

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