Birmingham Chamber of Commerce press and PR manager John Lamb sparked furious online debate after his description of Twitter and MySpace as “absurdities”. Creative industries editor Anna Blackaby tweeted and spoke to West Midland businesses from a range of sectors who, far from seeing them as trivial, are using online social networks as vital business-building tools.

Given the fact that there are only 63 inhabitants in the village of Blakemere in Herefordshire, Wiggy Wigglers doesn’t get much passing trade.

But the natural gardening retailer has built up a wide customer base of avid gardeners from all over the world thanks to its use of blogs, podcasts, Facebook and Twitter to build up a loyal community of people who love gardening.

And conveniently, every now and then some of those people want to invest in a wormery, a pair of secateurs or one of the other items the company sells through its website.

Wiggy Wigglers has been so successful in building up its online presence through social networking sites that it has slashed its advertising budget by £80,000 a year and still gets the same number of new customers.

Wiggy Wigglers managing director Heather Gorringe explained how the company started off in social media.

“Back in 2005 we listened to a podcast and decided we would like to make our own because we are very isolated where we are situated. We realised that if we had a global conversation we could reach customers all over the world.

“We then started to blog and then took the step of setting up a Facebook group so we could set up a forum where our customers can talk about natural gardening without costing us a penny.

“We have about 1,300 members and they answer each others’ questions and we go in and answer questions about natural gardening.

“They also act as a focus group for us. Before if we wanted to ask anything we would have had to have written to them. On Facebook we can just put out an idea and they will tell us what they think.

“Then we went on Twitter which is much more about being short and sharp and building relationships with people.”

Although the company has saved thousands through using social media, Ms Gorringe emphasised that it has not been an overnight phenomenon – it has spent time and energy in building up relationships over the various sites it is present on.

“You have to spend time nurturing that,” she said.

Businesses using Twitter and other social networking sites to boost trade can come from a variety of sectors.

Poppy Red, for example, a bar in the Arcadian Centre in Birmingham, tweeted about its experience of using Twitter and how it has benefited from it.

It said: “We’ve now held two events for digital media types, purely off the back of using Twitter. Made money and promo’d the venue too.”

Emily Quinton, an award-winning Birmingham-based photographer, tweeted: “I’ve booked some work through Twitter and network with photographers and wedding suppliers around the UK and internationally.”

Another photography firm, Images of Birmingham, said it got a third of the traffic to its website through Twitter.

Linda Jones, director of Cannock-based agency Passionate Media wrote on Twitter: “Filled places on a training course for freelance writers, pitched new clients, built profile and got excellent testimonials.”

Broad Street-based media firm Aquila is also finding it is winning new business as a direct consequence of its strong presence on Twitter.

Aquila co-director Julia Higginbottom said: “We have had some duplicating work come through it with people we don’t know – they tweeted they needed something doing and we pounced on it.

“That’s the sort of thing that’s easy to put out there and it’s those sort of things that are the lifeblood of the company.

“We are also currently in talks with a writer that we met through Twitter about producing some of his work on TV.”

Ms Higginbottom said as well as direct business wins through Twitter, the site also provides a good introduction to influential people who might one day prove to be clients.

She said although at first view some Twitter exchanges might seem trivial, they had an important role in breaking the ice and building up a relationship.

“We are using it a lot for contacting people who have a generally hierarchical structure and are unavailable to us, like commissioners for example.

“Although we might talk about irrelevant things on Twitter, when we do meet with them there is more shared understanding because we have got a shared interest in humour or food for example.”

Jonathan Hemus, who runs PR and crisis management firm Insignia, said he used Twitter as a way to build up a profile as an expert in his field.

>Read John Lamb's column, which sparked the debate here

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