Focusing on social media success stories, Friday's panel discussion during the 2013 Remodeling Leadership Conference last week stimulated great conversation both during and after the presentation. Moderated by Remodeling editor-in-chief Craig Webb (pictured, far right), the panelists were (left to right) Paul Hamtil, owner of Hamtil Construction, St. Louis; David Merrick, president of Merrick Design & Build, Kensington, Md.; and Christopher Wright, president of WrightWorks, Indianapolis. The three well-respected remodelers shared that whether you participate in social media a little or a lot, there are ways to maximize its value to your business.

"I hate social media," Merrick revealed during his introduction. "I really don't like it. I'm a tech geek though, and I've made sure to stay on the leading edge of all different types of technology that come out." Merrick has staff members that spearhead the company's social media efforts, though he makes sure to stay involved, saying, "I really feel that we've been successful because we're not afraid of it."

So, with an understanding that social media is an important part of 21st century marketing -- whether you like it or not -- here's a rundown of how Merrick, Hamtil, and Wright have found success with popular platforms. Panel questions were submitted by conference attendees during the session and have been edited for clarity.

What’s your view of the importance social media should have in small business today?
Wright: I'm of a generation that grew up with computers. I'm not a programmer, I'm not an HTML guy, but I've been involved in the online community for a really long time, going back to AOL, CompuServe - things that aren't around anymore. In the beginning it was all about the website, and as these other things have come online like Facebook, Twitter, Houzz, Pinterest - they all now interest and interface and overlap. With SEO (search engine optimization), lead generation, sales and marketing, conversion, these platforms are incredibly important for those of us who run companies that require a steady flow of leads.

Merrick: I grew up in the advertising world; my father had an advertising agency. He taught us that marketing isn't just about doing a cute commercial, but getting your message across and getting quality feedback from it. The value of social media, what's in it for me, is what our customers are getting out of it. And for them to get something out of it, you have to have a plan for how you use social media. You don't just get on and start posting things. You've got to know what you're after.

Hamtil: Some people would believe that I was born with a gene for tech stuff, but that's not the case. I'm old enough that my younger friends just pick it up immediately, but it's been a learning process for me. My brother originally suggested I try LinkedIn, so I participated in some groups there and it was instantly clear that there were professional benefits in building connections. Now I have a healthy respect for social media. We've stumbled and tripped over a lot of things, but I feel like we've struck a good balance. It's not our primary tool in our virtual toolbox, but it has been a good supplement to our overall advertising and marketing.

I don't know what kind of content we could post that would be useful to potential customers. They say you have to post a lot.
Wright: It shouldn't be about the numbers because it's just one tool in terms of your reach. I've gotten the opportunity to connect with a lot of people, and I've reaped professional benefits from that. It's also benefitted my website in terms of generating content for homeowners. Now I have friendships with people all over the country, so when I post an article or recent photo and that photo gets shared, you realize the network you build will help throw your content out farther and father, and it all directs back to you at the end of the day.

I still think all roads should lead to my website, and that’s' where I want people to contact me for my work, but there are so many ways to get people there. Content is king, but it's just about trying to get yourself out there - not necessarily to get directly in front of a homeowner.

Hamtil: You have to use social media like a megaphone to say, "this is what I'm doing." Being present, being out there, and just trying - that's probably the key to success because you have to be in the right place at the right time.

How many hours per week do you spend on social media?
Merrick: That's scary to think about! Between the four of us that are involved in it [at our company], we're probably spending 10 hours a week.

Wright: Today it's far less than in the past. It can be a giant time suck for productivity. I've gone stretches, especially when I was rebuilding my website, where I've spent multiple hours a day.

Merrick: Right. But once you understand the system, it's a one-minute activity. It only takes a few seconds to make a post here or there, but it's learning it and getting comfortable with it that takes the longest.

Hamtil: I used to spend too much time on it because it takes a while to get into it, but eventually you get to cruising altitude. We could spend a little as five to 10 minutes a day, but I'd say on average it's an hour. There's also a benefit to outsourcing social media because you're buying into people that understand it and can maximize the time.

How do you measure the return on investment you get from social media?
Merrick: I would defy anyone to put a number on social media. You can't measure it because it's so integrated into everything we do.

Wright: It's a "multitouch" to get people to come to us. Maybe they saw my yard sign, searched online, saw an article in a paper, and then heard my name in conversation before they were prompted to call me. It's hard to say that anyone came to us specifically because of social media. My own measurement is how I'm ranking in search results thanks to all my online efforts, including social media.

How do you generate likes on your social media profiles?
Hamtil: We ask for them. We ask people to like us and follow us, and we don’t have any shame in it. We also ask them to share projects with their friends and fans and use that as a second-tier approach by engaging others through people that are already engaged with us.

Merrick: When a potential client asks for references, we direct them to our Facebook page, and we ask our customers to post photos, comments, questions -- good or bad -- to our Facebook page. We also recommend that they go to Houzz to see our portfolio.

What about repeats and referrals?
Wright: We want to share and take pride in the projects we build, and that's where we use Facebook a lot. We might tag a homeowner's name if they're comfortable with letting us do that. That way, anything they're tagged in can be seen by all their connections. That engagement is really important; that's where being interested and interesting is important.

Merrick: It's really important to know how you're going to use each of the platforms. We use Facebook as a place to reinforce our brand and give customers a place to tell the story of their experience with our company. In the design phase, we find Houzz is great because everyone's sharing all their pictures there. We invite our potential clients to go to Houzz and set up an ideabook to show us what they're trying to accomplish.

I work for an older clientele. I don't think they use social media, so why should I bother with it?
Merrick: Make sure to ask yourself if you're missing something. Are there younger people in your area that you could work for if you were more active on social media? Are you sure your older customers aren't using social media? A lot of retirees are using the platforms to connect with their children and grandchildren, so they might be there after all.

Hamtil: We like to look at our Facebook insights to understand the demographics of the people we're reaching. For us, our top demographic is 30- to 50-year-old women; the average age of a social media user is older than you think. We've found that some of the people we're reaching on social media are actually the children or caretakers of older homeowners. One woman from Texas found us on Facebook and called us up in St. Louis. She said, "I've been following you on Facebook. My mom needs some accesibility updates to her home. Can you connect with her?" That ended up becoming a project for us, and it's happened that way more than once. But even if you're not converting jobs directly from social media, there are benefits.

Merrick: If you're genuine about the content you're putting up there and it's interesting, you'll find interested people.

Hamtil: There's probably a lot of remodelers that don't do social media and don't want to do it, and I understand that. But it's also important to understand that the SEO landscape is changing and if you're online and participating in social media, that involvement helps your overall online presence.

Do you pay for social media? How do you budget for it?
Wright: Houzz is rolling out a pro sponsorship program. If you go to search for local professionals, there are a couple of dozen categories. Now they're offering you a chance to pay for placement on that list and sell it by category and region. Right now, I don't pay. I'm in the "general contractor" category, and I could be in K&B, but I would have to pay for that.

Hamtil: Social media could be half of our marketing budget, but you have to consider budget in terms of time, not just money. Devote your time to two or three platforms and do them well, rather than five or 10 on an insignificant basis. Having a profile and not posting could actually devalue your presence.

If there was one social media platform you would recommend, what would it be?
Hamtil: Of all of the platforms we've talked about, I'd say go check out Houzz. They've grown in the past year about 250% in terms of unique monthly page views to something like 14 million. People are looking to do projects, and probably not a lot of remodelers in your market are on Houzz. When you finish a job, captures those raving clients and ask them to write a Houzz review for your. If your clients are on Pinterest, tell them to check out Houzz and they'll fall in love with it.

Wright: You should be emphasizing on Houzz or Twitter, but start with your basic marketing plan. How are you different from anyone else? What do you do better than any and all alternatives in your market? Always start with your marketing message.