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Online social networks and Jamaican businesses

While it may not have the image of Kingston's hippest hotel, the Jamaica Pegasus can teach younger companies some lessons about how to use online social networking tool Twitter to communicate with and expand their customer base.

Twitter is the 'microblogging' service, available on computers and your cellular phone that a child might be using in class right now to correspond with his or her friends and their wider world. But that same service, which allows messages of up to 140 characters, can also be a vital tool in sharing information about your business and interacting with your customers, which is what the Pegasus does so well.

Last month the hotel hosted its second 'tweet up' - an event where Twitter users - gather to meet and mingle in person. Other companies where there too, such as @ncbja, @palacemovies, @JustBet_JA and @jamaicaobserver - always prefaced by the @ symbol these are identities, known as 'handles', which identify Twitter users.

'We', that is the established companies, have never been the leaders in the new social media world. It has largely been left to young upstarts such as 26-year-old Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg who have helped to grow the tremendous popularity of social networking websites. Every business would do well to appreciate the popularity of social websites not least with Facebook being the most popular website in Jamaica. Now with more than 1,000 followers, @jamaicapegasus certainly does.

"The aim is not to change our brand image but to introduce our brand to this younger market segment. We have learnt that the young professionals can appreciate our product but they can do so even more through this direct method of communication. They may not readily respond to a newspaper or a radio advertisement to come to Sunday Brunch but if you give them a taste of Sunday Brunch they spread the word via Twitter readily," Pegasus Director of Sales Prudence Simpson told Caribbean Business Report.

Indeed, the tweet-up was fully subscribed within eight hours of its announcement. Attendees were invited to bring receipts from purchases made at the hotel to win prizes. Once inside the event they were sampling Pegasus food and hospitality. This was the only event for Twitter users in Jamaica. And it was free. The benefits for the Pegasus were obvious.

"Our followers quickly became our friends and customers because of the everyday interaction. We felt we wanted to meet these exciting and diverse young professionals and therefore created the atmosphere in which they would be the most comfortable. Tweet-ups are a worldwide phenomenon and we adopted it to our own style. The cost of holding a tweet-up is direct marketing whereby the atmosphere we create and the catering service we provide is a showcase of our products and services. The return on investment is quickly realised when the phones start ringing with requests for more invites and we accommodated some of our loyal followers by adding some additional invitations," explained Simpson.

For several days either side of the event, Twitter was buzzing with positive feedback about the event and the Pegasus itself. Tweeters were invited to add the 'hashtag' #jptweetup2 to their messages (hashtags are used on Twitter to help persons search for and identity tweets about a particular subject), which were projected onto a giant screen onstage. Several bloggers have since posted glowing accounts of the event.

At the Observer we have been using Twitter since earlier this year. We tweet headlines and accompanying weblinks of our articles, which allow our more than 6,000 followers to click read via jamaicaobserver.com. For the most part our Twitter experience was limited to this news feed style, much like an RSS feed or email update service.

Prior to the tweet-up we had begun replying to and also retweeting (forwarding) messages sent by our followers we hoped might be sufficiently interesting or relevant to others. We did so cautiously at first, worried that complaints of 'spamming' might outweigh positive feedback from those who welcomed our becoming more interactive.

"#FF @jamaicaobserver @JamaicaPegasus @PalaceMovies *amazing J'can companies who are doing social media correctly!" responded @carybbeance, using the 'Follow Friday' hashtag to invite her followers to follow the three companies. So far we have been aware of just one complaint: "Not 4 me. I want stories not promos n PR."

Companies are learning that using Twitter as the social network it is intended to be can pay off. It can certainly create goodwill among your followers. One follower exclaimed that 'the Observer' was human enough to respond! Meanwhile a choice of free software applications will allow you to monitor each time you are mentioned. You have the option to respond directly or publicly to that user - indeed we do so publicly when a user notifies us of a possible correction.

We have good reason to be thankful for the input of our followers. Just last week Friday the Observer celebrated the Jamaican leg of Fashion's Night Out, which we helped to promote via Twitter. Several days before the event we were contacted by @dVirtualPA who suggested that we begin using #FNOja to help support the event (#FNO was the worldwide equivalent).

"Follow, tweet and retweet @jamaicaobserver and #FNOja if you want to make Jamaica #1 on Twitter on Friday, Sept 10!" we tweeted. Our followers graciously retweeted the message.

Attached to all our tweets about FNO and with other users, including participating stores catching on, #FNOja soon snowballed. While our encouragement to help make the local event and Jamaica the number one trend on Twitter did not quite succeed, individual users willingly supported and retweeted something they regarded as valuable to their community.

According to analysis posted by local blogger Dmitri Dawkins (@utenjm), 416 users used the hashtag in sharing information about the event between themselves and their followers.

"416 unique authors may not seem like a lot, but those 416 authors had a potential impact of 152,000 views. Additionally this hashtag was specific to Jamaica, most of those 152,000 views were Jamaican. Additionally these views are better than any flyer, because it is buzz, people talking to people about the event, creating greater online presence and awareness directly," wrote Dawkins.

We are stating the obvious by reporting that social networks are extremely powerful in spreading information and influence. For instance the recent civil unrest saw local Twitter user, blogger and University of the West Indies academic @anniepaul featured by the New York Times. A smart phone allows its user to communicate not just with talk and text; capture audio, photographs and video; but to also communicate all this via instant messenger, email, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and other social networks. Jamaicans are becoming walking, talking media houses.

Besides the implications for free speech and the flow of information in society, social networks could even improve customer service in Jamaica. Already growing in Jamaica, Foursquare uses a reward system to encourage its users to rate places they visit. When once your staff might have scoffed at a complaint from an ordinary member of the public, savvy use of social networks means you might want to encourage VIP treatment of all customers.

"Social networks can improve customer service, definitely, because it keeps the consumer at the forefront. It lends importance to the consumer in that companies have to be very careful how they treat customers because people have instant access on their phones like their Blackberry and they can make things very difficult because they can say something and back it up with photos and video. It gets tweeted and retweeted; prompts dialogue and social networking gets the word out very quickly . Indeed it goes viral very quickly," explained prolific local Twitter user @oddonedesigns, who has more than 600 followers and has sent nearly 33,000 tweets.

While some local businesses have suffered criticism on Twitter, said @oddonedesigns, she cited Suzie's Bakery and Scotchies jerk restaurant as two Kingston-based businesses that have benefited from positive feedback. While Scotchies doesn't appear to be active on Twitter (@susiesbakery is), a quick search reveals plenty of positive feedback.

"@noreik23: Definitely in the mood to eat at scotchies right now #dweet"« you should jus buy shares the way u luv eat there," tweeted @kissaberri.

Of course, in any business or occupation, we all have countless tasks to manage and besides, learning a new technology can be daunting. But that doesn't mean you must be condemned to #fail and #epicfail, believes media consultant Marcia Forbes, better known to younger Jamaicans as @marciaforbes began using Twitter during research for her book, 'Youths Online', to be published next month.

"Twitter is delivering great returns on my investment which is largely time. In business 'time is money'," said Forbes. "You can't feel 'too old' or 'too important' or 'too busy' to learn new media. Especially if you're in business you need to understand even the basics."

Or you could consider hiring the expertise of a young person who can do the work or choose to be taught by them, as Forbes did.

@dVirtualPA provides a professional Twitter service. Preferring to be known only by her Twitter handle for the time being, she established herself by doing part-time tasks for small businesses such as data entry or research. She has since moved into social networking and handles multiple accounts and social networking tools for various Jamaican companies. Her business has grown to a point where she is hiring other persons to tweet for her.

"There are quite a lot of Jamaicans on Twitter: persons in corporate Jamaica; entertainers; in school; entrepreneurs, techies; and for the most part, yes, we tweet very regularly! Many friends I now have, I first met via Twitter," she said. "And yes, there are a number of persons also doing the same thing (tweeting professionally), most of whom I know, even if only via Twitter."

Twitter, while it might be the subject of this article, is not yet the dominant social network in Jamaica. That distinction belongs to Facebook. Digicel alone has more than 220,000 Facebook fans. In fact it reached 100,000 fans in 100 days - the same amount of time which the company acquired 100,000 customers following its Jamaican launch in 2001. (Island Grill also has a strong following on Facebook with nearly 60,000 fans while the Jamaica Tourist Board's Visit Jamaica is closing on 90,000.)

Benton McTaggart is the PR executive at Digicel Jamaica (@Digicel_Jamaica) responsible for monitoring its social networking accounts. The company engages with social networks on a number of levels including free credit promotions and product giveaways. Of course, most companies won't have similar resources - such as being able to offer BlackBerry smart phones as prizes - but customer interaction via social networks is both invaluable and free, said McTaggart.

"ROI will always be a question that many companies will ask when it comes to using Facebook in their marketing thrust but the reality is that we get fantastic support from our customers. There is strong brand awareness. The benefits for us at Digicel are both tangible and intangible - the more our fans know about our products and services, the more they will want to use them," he said. "Facebook for example allows who you want to target with your ads in terms of age, sex, nationality, education level, etc. Most importantly, it allows you to get real time feedback from your customers on their experience with your products and services," he said.

Skepticism about the importance of the Internet in Jamaica is likely to remain, however, with Internet access and use remaining relatively low. Hopeton Dunn, head of the Telecommunications Policy Management Programme (TPM) at the Mona School of Business, UWI, estimates that access to household Internet services in Jamaica now exceeds a third of the population. Dunn is currently preparing an islandwide survey in association with the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

However, the last national survey conducted by the TPM in 2007 reported that Internet access and use totalled 21 per cent of the population, which if his estimation is verified reveals steady growth, if not on par with the cellular industry. Dunn has indentified four factors crucial to helping grow the Internet in Jamaica:

1.    Supply: Telecommunications and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are making the Internet more available and people are responding by demanding the service.

2.    Demand: More businesses are going online in Jamaica and some entirely. Government is also offering its services online.

3.    Government's e-Learning Project: With more Jamaicans being exposed to the Internet at high school there is expectation that they will demand the service, either through fixed networks or through their mobile phones.

4.    Social networking: Sites like Facebook provide a reason to go online, whether to meet up with old friends, new friends or promote business or causes. Jamaican entertainers are increasingly being represented online, which encourages their fans to follow them there.

"Above all else, the main challenges are effective access and the cost of meaningful access to the Internet. This point is especially relevant now, given the freeze on public sector wages, higher college fees, the real reduction in Jamaican wages by over 17 per cent and other adverse economic conditions. Other significant challenges include the need for greater information, literacy and stronger policy initiatives to drive the process. Both the government and the business sector need to place greater emphasis on building ICT growth for more efficiency, productivity and development of people in Jamaica," he added.

Responsibility for online and social networking remains limited to the IT department at some local companies, where management maybe unfamiliar or unwilling to learn about the potential for their overall operations. Taking the decision to improve the reach of their website, companies may prefer to hire search engine optimisation (SEO) consultants, which will improve their search rankings of their website but not the user experience of persons who click and visit.

The more organic alternative, investing in social networking and blogging - producing content - will improve your ranking not only with the search engines but also with your customers. Companies (including the JTB's islandbuzzjamaica.com) are increasingly turning to blogs and social networking to produce and share content not solely about their product but wider industry trends, positioning themselves as experts and helping to build community and trust around their product.

Imagine you are the company whose representative this morning upsets an Immaculate High School student who tweets her complaint, complete with photograph, to her 500-odd followers one of whom happens to be a well-known deejay with more than 10,000 followers. He in turn retweets the message and adds his own dissatisfactory experience. Soon Twitter will be buzzing with criticism by Jamaicans from various social backgrounds and ages - yet the first you may know about it is when the news media contact you for a response in the early evening.

Which company would you rather work for in the future?

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