When Dozen Bake Shop in Lawrence updated its Facebook page to announce the daily specials -- "Two new scones: Lemon Blueberry and Chorizo Cheddar! Also, Rainbow cake!" -- its fans were quickly abuzz.
"I'll be there soon!" replied a fan within an hour, while someone else posted, "I need to come and get some of that rainbow cake! It sounds quite tasty."
For the bakery, the ability to instantaneously reach out to a vast customer base -- more than 600 Facebook fans and nearly 400 Twitter followers -- makes social networking sites invaluable.
The business impact is perceivable. That day, the store was "incredibly busy," and the two scone flavors sold out quickly, said Tara Zynel, a front-of-the-house employee.
Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter originally served to connect users with their friends, but are now being embraced by businesses, which use the sites as marketing tools.
In November 2007, Facebook launched Fan Pages, which allowed brands to create profiles, upload pictures and respond to customers. The more barebones micro-blogging site Twitter, founded in 2006, allows users to write 140-character updates seen by people who elect to follow their posts.
Both sites have seen tremendous growth. The number of unique visitors to Twitter jumped 1,382 percent, from 475,000 in February 2008 to 7 million in February 2009, according to market researcher Nielson Online. In that same period, Facebook is estimated to have grown by 228 percent.
Nationally, such brands as Starbucks and shoe-retailer Zappos have social media campaigns encompassing both Facebook and Twitter, and other major corporate Twitter-ers include Whole Foods, Comcast, JetBlue and American Apparel. PC-maker Dell announced Twitter had helped the company make $3 million since 2007 from customers who followed its links to make purchases.
Now, Pittsburgh companies both small and large are increasingly discovering the business value of such sites. Many report the greatest value lies in enhancing communication with consumers.
21st Street Coffee and Tea, with locations in the Strip District and Downtown, uses its blog to educate customers about current offerings and coffee culture, something that co-owner Luke Shaffer can't always do in the store due to the fast pace.
"There's so much information that I would like to communicate to every customer who comes in that it would overload people," Mr. Shaffer said. He also uses Twitter to put out quick messages about new flavors or just to share his thoughts on local events.
Though he has no way to measure precisely how much business the sites bring, Mr. Shaffer said new customers sometimes arrive in the store already knowledgeable about the menu and the cafe from reading the blog.
Bigger companies -- whose size puts them at risk for losing the personal touch -- also are making an effort to reach out through these social networking sites.
South Side clothing retailer American Eagle Outfitters, for instance, has a Facebook page with discussions ranging from sizing to the company's credit card and uses its Twitter page to address customer concerns.
When a customer complained the site crashed before she could use her soon-to-expire coupon, American Eagle engaged her in a multitweet conversation to work out the issue, visible to the brand's more than 4,000 followers.
John Gatesman, a partner at marketing communications agency GatesmanMarmionDrake on the South Side, said social networking sites were generally most useful for lifestyle-driven companies, such as those related to food, clothing or music, since customers are more likely to follow the activities of those brands.
He cautioned that not every business would benefit from social networking sites, and that companies must closely watch and monitor their profiles.
"Facebook and Twitter need to be used in the right way and supported properly," Mr. Gatesman said.
Eat'n Park, a restaurant chain based at the Waterfront development in Homestead, tweets under the user name smileycookie and has a Facebook fan page, blog and e-mail list, all of which were created to find "different ways to communicate and relate with our guests," said Kevin O'Connell, senior vice president of marketing.
Such channels allow the company to foster a sense of community by communicating with customers in a more casual and friendly manner.
The online tools also allow the chain to make short-term changes in strategy. After it was clear the Penguins would play a game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final, Eat'n Park quickly moved to offer a 20 percent discount on takeout for game day, knowing customers would want to be at home in front of the TV.
The move paid off. In response to the coupons offered on Facebook, Twitter and by e-mail, takeout sales shot up 60 percent that day.
Yet Eat'n Park still uses mass media marketing such as TV commercials and radio advertisements to reach the broadest audience.
Through those media, "You can hit people who are both interested and not interested," said Mr. O'Connell. Facebook or Twitter reach only those people who are engaged with the company.
That can be a drawback to the business use of social networking sites: They reach only a limited audience. Aldo Coffee in Mt. Lebanon discovered that when it did a breakdown of its Twitter followers and found the account wasn't reaching most customers.
Co-owner Rich Westerfield, who manages the store's Twitter account, said only about 18 percent of the store's 600-plus followers were local residents. Forty-seven percent are others in the coffee industry, and the remainder are random foodies or those with food blogs.
Though customers will sometimes come in because they saw the special soup or coffee of the day on Twitter, for the most part, the older demographic of the community means that Aldo's online accounts don't receive much attention, said Mr. Westerfield.
"Most of our people don't understand the Internet," he said, meaning that Twitter captures only a "small slice" of the customer base.
Down the line, Mr. Westerfield said that could change. "I imagine that there's going to be some kind of mass movement of marketers to global media marketing down the road."
Liyun Jin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1410.