There's no shortage of talk about engagement in marketing circles, but really honestly engaging with people (not just customers, but any target audience) is a lot harder than most of us are willing to admit. It takes real work. It takes creativity. It takes a sincere desire to understand the people whose influence can elevate your brand. And, critically, it takes a commitment to create social content that resonates with the personalities you're trying to reach.
At the start of the social gold rush, the prevailing attitude among businesses that "got it" was that we just needed to get in there and join the conversation. Social media strategies focused on figuring out ways to crank up follower counts. Quickly, though, savvy brands realized they needed to do something more, and there are now -- happily -- hundreds of companies out there creating genuine, mutually valuable relationships with their customers on the social web through thoughtfully executed strategies that reward customer interaction.
While there are undoubtedly some major differences between managing a company's relationship to its customers and managing your own interpersonal relationships, the basics of both are pretty similar. Here are four fundamental social principles to consider before you launch a social campaign. (And if you're already on the social web, they should help you get more traction from your efforts.)
1. Be a Good Listener
It's always awkward walking into the middle of a conversation. And for brands on the social web, it can be disastrous. Using social listening tools like Radian6 or Sprout Social to monitor ongoing chatter about your brand and competition can prepare you to act strategically from your very first post. This may sound simple to social media pros who represent prominent brands, but small businesses more often tend to leap onto Twitter without really looking at what they're getting themselves into. Effective social listening tools can cost less than $10 a month and save you the potentially costly embarrassment of a social misstep on the web.
2. Be Self-Aware
Knowing what people really think of you (by being a good social listener) can sometimes present a little shock to your ego. Because chances are, if your brand is having any impact on your customers, at least some small portion of that impact may not be entirely positive. After all, almost every company has its share of disgruntled customers. So what do you do once you've heard the feedback? A little soul-searching.
Case in point: Domino's Pizza had taken a bad rap for years over the quality of its food. And when a YouTube video emerged showing two employees doing disgusting things to customers' food, the got an earful from the pizza-buying public. But rather than close its ears to criticism, the company got serious about social media, apparently tightened up its management practices, revised its offerings, and came back with an ambitious marketing campaign that openly admits its past shortcomings (focusing on food rather than sick shenanigans) and shows customers that the brand has listened and changed.
There can be little doubt that the Domino's leadership fought through some tough internal struggles on its road to social recovery, but the fact that the company now uses the phrase "We were one of the worst offenders" in its new ad campaign displays a delightful capacity for self-awareness and offers customers a reason to give the company another try.
3. Be Transparent
It should seem obvious, but the fact that the social web is a two-way channel seems to elude many companies. Earlier this month, McDonald's re-learned this lesson the hard way when its #McDStories hashtag was highjacked by Twitter users poking fun at the company's reputation for budget dining and minimalist service. Within an hour, it was clear that the attempted campaign had run completely off the rails, and the company has since become more associated with the hashtag #McFail.
While one could argue that the misstep here could have largely owed to a shortage of self-awareness within the organization (did they know what people really think of the brand?), the company also made some of the same mistakes we saw in Nestle's 2010 Twitter meltdown. They were just too slow to respond, and rather than tackle the problem with direct acknowledgement, they tried to simply pull the hashtag from use (a hopeless cause), leaving it entirely in the hands of jokers and pranksters.
When in doubt, be direct. There's no place to hide on the social web, and you can't trick people into liking your brand (or shutting up when they don't). However, a little transparency and humility go a long way with social media users, and a company that gets involved in an ongoing discussion and shows the public how hard it's trying to do the right thing will generally stand a very good chance of turning the conversation around.
What's more difficult -- but potentially much more rewarding for the brand -- is a more exhaustive policy of social transparency. Don't just leave social media to underlings. Get involved from the top down. When CEOs tweet, people listen, and it can be very good for the brand.
4. Be Proactive
For most businesses -- especially smaller ones with regional or local brands -- the idea of a full-scale #McFail or Nestle-style Twitter fiasco would be something to aspire to. Rather, it's often hard enough to get anyone to come interact with your brand. But if you're listening strategically and responding transparently to your customers, you'll likely spot plenty of opportunities to proactively drive engagement.
In good times, that means listening to the praise you're getting online and rewarding vocal customers by reaching out to them with special offers (not canned specials, mind you, but real special offers just for those users who've been so kind to your business). In tough times, that means responding to criticism with genuine interest and concern, and taking the initiative to turn critics into fans by solving their problems. Comcast pioneered this approach with its Comcast Cares Twitter feed, and the practice has spread to most forward-thinking brands on the social web.
Have your own tales of social best practices? Share them with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.