“Businesses that use the Web are growing 15% faster than those that do not. That’s the reality now,” said Susan Sobbott, president of American Express OPEN, in closing her lunchtime panel discussion at The New York Times Small Business Summit.

It was tough talk for attendees who still aren’t using social media as part of their marketing strategy. Three companies with representatives on the panel showed that social media can be key to small-business success.

Birchbox

Birchbox became a social phenomenon when subscribers, who receive a bright-pink box containing five beauty-product samples each month, started posting videos of themselves opening boxes and showing off their contents all over the Internet, co-founder Hayley Barna said.

“Beauty is an inherently sharable category,” and the “self-giving experience,” beautiful packaging and surprise element add to subscribers’ excitement and motivate them to share with friends and connect with other subscribers online, Barna said.

One secret to Birchbox’s success is letting subscribers take the lead on the Web instead of trying to dominate the conversation about its brand, as many companies attempt to do.

And when it comes to the content Birchbox puts out, it takes a more casual approach. “Don’t be afraid to make things personal,” Barna said. Your website and social media presence don’t have to be perfectly polished and corporate. Birchbox found that it often draws the most attention with videos of employees around the office opening their own boxes and talking about their favorite products.

Orabrush

Although its founder got tongue cleaner Orabrush onto retail shelves, the product sat there virtually unnoticed. Then, a marketing student suggested trying a YouTube video, which changed the company’s fortune, said Austin Craig, star of that video and spokesman for Orabrush.

The humorous YouTube video went viral, and Orabrush started flying off shelves. Still, Craig says, the company didn’t know that would happen when it spent $500 to make the video. “Putting a video on YouTube and expecting it to go viral is like buying a ticket and hoping to win the lottery,” he said.

But Orabrush did do some research that likely helped its experiment succeed. Studying YouTube videos, the company found that the most popular ones are personality driven, which is how Orabrush decided to cast Craig as the star and build its video around his personality. Then, the company specifically designed the video, and those that followed, to pre-emptively address any reservations potential customers might have.

Once Orabrush found success at smaller retailers, it wanted get into America’s biggest: Wal-Mart Stores. At first, Wal-Mart ignored the company, so Orabrush again turned to social media to get its attention. The company spent $28 on a Facebook ad targeted at Wal-Mart executives, accusing them of bad breath, and soon after got into the retailer.

Craig’s advice on using social media: Remember, it’s supposed to be social, so keep it a two-way conversation. You also want to “try to see things from your customers’ perspective and connect the way they want you to.”

Be willing to go to Facebook and ask fans what they want. “Using Facebook fans, you can get relevant data for your business faster and cheaper” than by hiring an agency to survey customers, Craig said.

Warby Parker

Online eyeglass company Warby Parker was born out of its founders’ outrage at the retail cost of stylish specs. They knew they could do that for much less and have had wild success selling complete pairs for $95 apiece, including shipping.

Warby Parker has a virtual try-on tool and sends customers five pairs to try out for five days, a policy that co-founder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal said builds trust and inspires people to buy.

The company was surprised to discover that sending glasses to people at home or the office turned the buying process a social experience that customers would share with friends and family in person and online, Blumenthal said. About 50% of Warby Parker’s sales come through word of mouth.

Warby Parker views great customer service as a profit center, hiring graduates from top local universities to man its call center. When you’re marketing via social channels, you need to focus on what’s most important to customers, not you, Blumenthal said.

Also, while it’s true that people are more likely to say nasty and negative things about a company online than off, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Blumenthal said. When you find negative talk online, it gives you a chance to learn, improve and strengthen your relationship with customers by making things right.

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