Top 10 ways to engage an audience through social media

Posted on October 3rd, 2009 by Richard Taylor

I know what you’re thinking: “Not another top ten list about social media!”

I feel the same when faced with yet another list and while this might not have the quick punch of Letterman’s daily top 10, it will have more substance than an episode of Seinfeld.
For those of you with a 10-second attention span, here is the Top 10 list. These are topics I’ll be covering below, in roughly the order I’ll be approaching them. Hey, there has to be a list, otherwise this article’s title wouldn’t make sense!

1. It’s about the people
2. Engage
3. Keep it real
4. It takes time
5. Create content
6. Reward
7. Act local, think global
8. Social media takes many forms
9. Measure, measure, measure
10. Social media is a means, not an end

Before I start on how to engage an audience through social media, you might still be wondering why you would want to.
According to a new report from Lightspeed Research:

•30 per cent of Australian survey respondents said their opinion of a brand would improve if the brand provided a social network where they could ask questions.

•20 per cent of Australians would have their opinion of a brand improved by talking to bloggers directly about relevant products and services.

An opportunity to improve your brand’s standing with consumers by 30 per cent seems too good an opportunity to pass up – it is – but to engage in social media in a way that will achieve these results requires thought and planning.
According to Adam Sarner of Gartner, over 75 per cent of Fortune 1000 companies with web sites have undertaken some kind of online social-networking initiative, but 50 per cent of those campaigns will be classified as failures.
Sarner said“[Businesses] will rush to the community and try to connect, but essentially they won’t have a mutual purpose, and they’ll fail,”

This is where thought and planning comes in. Social media is about the people, not how you interact with them. It’s about individual members of communities and their culture within local, physical and global, virtual neighborhoods.

Today, people are joining global communities online, building real connections with people they may never meet in a manner that redefines relationships.
We are only just starting to analyze these groups and their behavior, which allows us to gauge how to interact with them – to find not only who your real customers are, but how to influence them.
Companies often approach social media as a shopping list of items such as a blog or a Twitter account to be used only as required to achieve a marketing driven goal and then abandoned after the specific campaign has ended.
This ad-hoc method is not only confusing for the consumer, but ultimately designed to fail. Social media must be undertaken as a long-term, coherent strategy in order to gain traction with your customers.
Start with your target audience and determine how they approach social media in general. You also need to determine the type of relationship you want to have with them.
Forrester Research categorizes social computing behaviors into a ladder with six levels of participation, which they call “Social Technographics” to describe analyzing a population according to its participation in these levels. You can analyze your customers’ participation level, and then create a social media strategy based on that information.
The ladder will help you select which social strategies to deploy first and allow you to encourage your audience to climb the participation ladder. Remember though, not everyone is cut out to be a creator, and some will never move beyond being a spectator – don’t push your audience to do something they aren’t ready or willing to do.

To participate effectively in social media, you must evolve. PR no longer means “Public Relations”, but instead stands for “Personal Relationships”.

Consumers today are very aware of marketing. They have grown to distrust faceless ‘company speak’. They fast forward through commercials and pull content that interests them from the internet rather being told what to consume by traditional media channels.

Being a content producer with global reach is no longer the realm of media moguls, as anyone can create and publish their own content.

Seeking advice from strangers is not a new phenomenon. We have been reading the New York Times bestseller list and the travel guides, asking a local for directions for years. The one thing that hasn’t changed in the jump to social media is that, despite the person the consumer seeks advice from being a stranger, they are also a trusted source. In the examples above, this trust is earned in the case of the New York Times and a travel publisher such as Lonely Planet, or local knowledge is assumed in the case of asking for directions.

In social media, consumers pay close attention to (and are influenced by) word of mouth. Earning a positive reputation and becoming a trusted source takes time, effort and patience.

So how do you go about creating this reputation and earning trust? Let’s take Facebook as an example. You create a profile, make friends and reciprocate when people friend you. You add applications, join groups and RSVP to events. This helps to define your identity. The interaction, content and comments you produce help build your reputation.

Part of this reputation is based on being transparent. Be honest about who you are and whom you represent. If you have a blog or Twitter account with personal branding, and a member of your team writes your message, acknowledge it’s not from you.

Be honest about who you are and whom you represent.

The information you provide when building your reputation in turn allows other users to gauge your trust factor.

This building of reputation and trust happens over time which is why social media is suited to long-term engagement, not for quick campaigns. User-generated content takes time to spread and the last thing you want at the beginning of your experience are angry customers, because they only just found out about a campaign that has already ended.

Interacting with your existing customer base is a great way to kick-start your social media strategy and to keep it rolling. Not only can social media prove a cost-effective way of keeping loyal customers up to date with promotions, but also it enables them to easily share their love of your company and products and become champions for you.

Once your social media strategy has started to take off, you can reward your customers, followers and fans by creating promotions that can only be accessed via social media channels. Discount codes, competitions, newsletters and sneak peeks all help reward loyal followers and entice new ones.

So now you have built a loyal social media following. They are entering your competitions and referring friends, so it’s time to take one of the hardest steps for any business and that is to, wait for it, stop and listen to what your customers want.

We all know that traditionally you are going to receive more complaints than praise via feedback such as customer questionnaires and letters. Social media makes it easier for people to sing your praises as well.

Set up a discussion board or actively engage in one (or more) that already exists and are relevant to you. Create a blog and monitor others that refer to your industry or brand. Leave comments. Note the key word in both of those last two sentences is engage.

While we’re talking about bloggers it’s important to note that more than eight in ten bloggers post product or brand reviews, and almost nine in ten blog about brands that they love (or hate).

Bloggers and Brands

No matter what social media platform you’re using, don’t shout the naysayers down. Don’t delete comments that you don’t like. A mix of good and bad comments shows your customers that there really is a place to express their feelings. Embrace the feedback, ask for more information and offer suggestions and resolutions.

Ask your customers for advice. Trying to decide which color will sell more than another? What size or style is most popular before you order stock? Set up a poll and let your customers vote. Polls and quick surveys are an easy way to gain knowledge of your customers likes and dislikes.

By announcing when you have acted upon the results, it gives your customer a feeling of contributing to the company and increases their brand loyalty, taking them a step closer to being a brand ambassador.

Your social media content (and that of your happy or dissatisfied customers) can be seen as easily by a person from England or Australia. If your product is sold internationally, or you are the local distributor or retailer of an international brand, it’s important to remember this when setting up your social media strategy.

If you are representing a global brand, be sure that competitions are open worldwide, or that there are enough competitions to make your overseas consumer not feel like they are being punished for not living in the same country as your head office.

As with any other global marketing campaign, it is imperative that you take into account regional differences and behaviours.

As shown in the Conversation Prism below, social media takes many forms from social networks such as Facebook and MySpace to blogging and micro-blogging services such as worpress.com, Google’s Blogger and Twitter. Video services such as YouTube and Vimeo, image sharing sites like flickr.

Your social media efforts don’t need to (and shouldn’t) cover every platform or every segment of the prism. Like any marketing campaign, you need to choose your platforms and your engagement levels.

Remember: social media is two-way and you need to have the time to interact with, and gain insights from, each platform you select.

The ability to monitor and measure not only the effectiveness of your social media interactions, but also what others are saying about you and your brands, is becoming more and more important as the impact of social media grows.

Most agencies now have social media monitoring offers that can find discussions about your company on millions of blog posts, videos and photos, forums, mainstream online news, and life-streaming channels such as FriendFeed and micro-blogging services such as Twitter. Real-time monitoring brings critical insights and the ability to quickly discover which conversations are having the most impact online.

Not only can you monitor the general ‘buzz’ but also many of these services will let you deep drill through the statistics to find actual conversations and the people behind them, giving you previously unheard-of power to engage quickly and directly with social influencers.

A survey by Equation Research recently asked 50,000 marketing professionals to take part in a 10-minute online survey. When asked, “How are you measuring the effectiveness of your social media efforts?” less than 34 per cent reported measuring social media buzz.

As you gather reports on the success of your social media reach and analyse them it’s important to remember that social media is just one component of a broader communications strategy.

Social media delivers a number of new two-way communication channels that allow consumers to not only have a voice, but to be heard both by their peers and by brands. It’s a teacher who constantly has a new lesson for you – the question is, are you ready to listen and learn?

Sources: atiattractionmarketing.com; briansolis.com; forrester.com; jeffbullas.com; laurelpapworth.com; nevillehobson.com

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