Molly Moon Neitzel has nothing against success. But she didn't set out to be the Howard Schultz of ice cream.

I really wanted to create a community gathering place with my first shop in Wallingford, said Neitzel, the owner of Molly Moon's Ice Cream stores, which now include six outlets. And I wanted to create a community gathering place for multiple generations: grandparents, young professionals, little kids.

Neitzel says most of those Seattle customers are all online and using social media in one form or another, so the company's Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts are logical Web-based extensions of those communities.

We love to do that offline in the ice cream shop - hanging with members of our community, neighbors and friends - but people are also hanging with neighbors and friends online too, she said. So we like to just tie all those experiences together.

Molly Moon's has been so successful with that effort that the company is frequently cited as an example of how businesses can use social media to grow customer communities. Stories like the ones Molly describes help explain Wall Street's interest in social media companies - see Twitter's recent IPO - and how their futures are tied to ad sales and other ways of making money.

Molly and her project manager, Emilia Arnold, are often asked to sit on panels to describe how they've used their social media followers as an impromptu focus group. Neitzel and Arnold ask open-ended questions about favorite flavors and sundaes, and educate customers about Molly Moon's efforts in seeking locally-sourced ingredients.

But what about sweetening the bottom line? Has social media actually helped Neitzel sell more ice cream?

Her answer deviates from the expected script. Social media marketers frequently cite research showing that the proper use of these networks can indeed boost business leads. But she suggests that not every small or midsize business should begin a social media strategy with dollar signs in the owners' eyes.

I don't really think that it leads all that much to direct sales, she said. When we post about a new sundae, I can't tell if people are flocking to come get that sundae because they saw it on social media, or because it looks good on the menu. She also says her company doesn't necessarily see upticks in new or established always flavors simply because they write about it on Facebook or shoot an Instagram photo.

So where's the value of social media for a small business like Molly Moon's? If there's no way to directly tie it to better sales, is it worth it?

For her answer, Neitzel gazes out the window of her newest store in the University Village shopping center and points out the professionally-done landscaping.

They spend millions of dollars on the flowers and trees here, she said. Do they know if it impacts our bottom line as merchants? No, but I sure appreciate it, and it makes the environment and experience so much better here that I think I'd come here more often.

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