A Fresh(Books) Approach to Social Media

 thirdtuesdaytoronto I headed out to the latest Third Tuesday Toronto tonight to learn about how Michael McDerment and FreshBooks is using online tools to promote its business.

(Full disclosure: FreshBooks sponsored last weekend’s PodCamp Toronto, of which I was a co-organizer)

As the event invitation stated:

Mike McDerment, entrepreneur, Internet marketing expert, and blogger has a lot to say about Public Relations in a Web 2.0 world and the services startup companies need from their agency partners. Having worked with consultants from both ends of the spectrum – from independent agents to huge multinational PR agencies – Mike has some clear ideas about what works and what doesn’t at the various stages in the evolution of a company. He’s learned how and when to use external PR services; how to be alert for conversations work within the blogosphere and know when and how to join them; and why sending someone in Fiji a box of Triscuits can sometimes get you much more attention than sending out a news release.

Another great turnout for tonight’s event, which I live-tweeted – check out my twitter stream here.

Freshbooks logo A few key take-aways for me:

  • Put a high priority on customer service from day one. At FreshBooks, senior management still deals with customer support issues.
    • New customer Connie Crosby gave a great example of how she received prompt, personalized service when she had a question late at night on a weekend.
    • FreshBooks is one of a small number of companies that provides customer support via Twitter.
  • Social media can be just as important as traditional press. FreshBook sees "more of an impact from a blog post than from the Globe and Mail."
    • McDerment wrote a blog post about how Triscuits was reinventing itself by introducing a series of new flavours. A customer in Fiji commented and said they couldn’t get any of the flavours in that country. FreshBooks shipped him a box of Triscuits free of charge. The customer’s resulting blog post generated a storm of positive coverage for the company.
  • PR companies can be the biggest game changer a start-up can have.
  • Entrepreneurs learn how to tell their firm’s "story" before using a PR firm. No-one can speak more persuasively about a brand than its founders.
  • The best PR people are passionate about their clients. If necessary, they’ll lock themselves away while they learn everything about a new clients’ business.
  • Be creative to find new opportunities to promote your brand.
    • FreshBooks staff are heading to both the Future of Web Apps conference (February 29 – March 1, 2008) in Miami, Florida and South by Southwest (March 7–11, 2008) in Austin, Texas. Rather than flying home between the two, they decided to rent an RV and drive across the country between the two conference. They’ve named the trip Roadburn, and are blogging about the trip at roadburn.freshbooks.com. They’re doing breakfast, lunch and dinner with customers in different cities every day.
  • Never get in a public shouting match with customers. Be classy. Know when to step away.
  • Be very careful when hiring, and spend as much time as it takes.
    • FreshBooks isn’t considering putting limits on its employees blogging – they rely on their staff having similar values to management (although I wonder if a blogging policy would help both employees and management know where they stand).

Overall, these guys really impressed me. They’re out there, trying all the online tools they can to communicate with their customers and rewarding them for their loyalty. I got a lot out of the presentation – thanks to Michael and Saul Colt for presenting tonight and thanks to Michael O’Connor Clarke for emceeing. Once again, the post-presentation conversation was as good as the main event itself too.

If there’s a Third Tuesday or similar event near you and you haven’t checked it out, you should!