Our worldwide online universe, like its real-world counterpart, is vast and reaches beyond simple comprehension. Companies in the world today must be prepared to navigate and engage with this online universe. They must seek and locate certain pockets of opportunity made up of current or future customers and digest their candid opinions. And when appropriate, companies need to engage in the conversation and share their valuable insights with the intent of endearing themselves with a customer base that wants to be heard and have their opinions and questions addressed. The conversation between companies and customers has truly become a two-way scenario and needs to be taken seriously.
Special attention is required when determining the best way to mine and engage the available information and conversations born daily within the dynamic activity of Social Media websites. For the sake of this document we define Social Media sites as those where conversations take place and opinions are shared in an environment that encourages rebuttal, response or comment. Included are Consumer Generated Media (CGM) sites like Youtube and flickr, traditional blogs like perezhilton.com and theconsumerist.com, forums like flyertalk.com and forums.msn.com, social networks like Facebook and Myspace, Q & A sites like answers.yahoo.com and ask.com, as well as the countless other sites popping up and establishing new categories every day. The one thing these sites have in common is that they encourage – many would say demand – that a broad audience participates in the ongoing conversations. The participating public’s voice is heard, respected, and affects the evolution of each of these site’s themes and overall tone.
Saint Street fundamentally believes in the value of deliberately and confidently entering into Social Media conversations. We define this process as Social Media Engagement, where a proactive action is taken by a representative of a company when they enter into a pre-existing conversation or establish a new one regarding any business-relevant topic.
Saint Street also preaches the utilization of best practices for Social Media Engagement as outlined by Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). Saint Street believes the most important of these practices is transparency (while engaging). Transparency is achieved when the company’s engaging representative is candid about who they represent. This should be done by all engagers, from a company’s directly employed staff to agency representatives and field marketers. Companies who are not transparent are perceived as inauthentic and dishonest with their consumers and their actions have shown to negatively affect confidence in their brand and product promise.
For more than four years Saint Street staff has worked with numerous clients who have realized positive results from targeted online engagement interactions. Conversely, we have also witnessed negative results from a multitude of ill-prepared companies attempting to connect with their customer base through Social Media. Lacking the science and discipline of how to engage, their loose efforts have backfired and negatively affected the integrity of their brand and the health of a product or service line. The practice of engaging in Social Media should be undertaken only by those with knowledge of the correct communication technique, and after the appropriate research and planning have been completed.
How to get started?
Before any company can proceed with a successful engagement effort they must first work through a few key steps to set realistic expectations. What follows is a basic set of recommendations those who would internalize the effort. However, we encourage you to partner with a firm that has experience in managing engagement programs.
Spend adequate time researching what your company’s Social Media footprint truly entails. This can be done in a wide variety of ways, starting with leveraging free tools like Google Search/Blogs, Technorati, or licensing social monitoring tools like those offered by Visible Technologies or radian 6. Keep in mind that smaller or newer companies or brands are very likely to have smaller online footprints.
Build a database of the key sites and associated personalities who are actively participating (bloggers, forum participants), paying particular interest to those that seem to be instigating and fueling the conversations. This will give you a head start in determining where to focus your engagement resources when the time comes.
Create a running sample summary of the various types of comments you come across about your company. Use these foundationally to start drafting prospective responses or messages for when you begin your engagement process. Don’t be afraid to turn to multiple groups within your company for guidance on messaging. We have seen groups ranging from investor relations to product managers provide the messaging ammunition for responses.
What you learn online should be shared pervasively throughout your company. Build summaries of where and how your brand or product is being referenced inaccurately and make sure that you make this information available to appropriate groups within your company. Product marketing might be able to shift their messaging and targeting. PR could actively drive stories that help clarify inaccuracies. Corporate executives could address any issues openly through a corporate blog or forum created within their corporate site.
No one person should be asked to take on the whole project of managing reputation in Social Media. With the right people proctoring their specific areas of expertise, and in concert with a larger messaging push including traditional media, you can measurably begin to shift perceptions and opinions about your company.
Through the Social Media evaluation process you and your team will begin to establish a list of resources within your company that you will invariably turn to for support, especially in the early stages of the engagement program. The earlier you begin to inform these resources of a need for participation the better the likelihood that they will make themselves available to you. Providing comprehensive summaries of online conversations that directly affect their department or respective job responsibilities will only help in the recruitment effort. And the larger and busier the company or department, the more advance time will be needed to bring them onto your solution team.
As you move through your audit you should start to establish some baseline metrics to use to evaluate engagement campaign effectiveness. At a minimum you should be tracking:
- Total number of online references
- Percentage positive/negative/neutral
- Specific types of messages i.e. products, brand, corporate relations, etc. (free and license-based tracking services will allow you to set up feeds based on particular product titles, proprietary features, etc. which can help in expediting the metric evaluation)
- Associations with competitors (direct comparisons) and how you stack up. Ideally you should also audit your direct competitors.
- References on higher profile sites versus small audience sites
When it’s time to jump in and engage, what are the best tips to follow?
This set of general recommendations and best practices is a starting place for your engagement strategy. As needed, Saint Street can work with you to establish a special set of recommendations particular to your campaign or program objectives. Lead insights to always keep in mind:
1. There is no perfect science to SM engagement. The practice for brands to interact with customers and consumers online via social media channels is in its infancy; thus, best practices are still being shaped by industry leaders.
2. Successful engagement is never guaranteed. What is guaranteed is that your voice will be heard and your message will be delivered to the people most interested – and relevant – at that moment in time. Now this is only if you have done your research and you build a process for tracking active conversations, especially those which you have entered into.
3. Your plan today may need to shift tomorrow. You have to be malleable. There are so many factors in life that affect public perception of your brand, the category you live in and the economic climate as a whole. So the approach you take today, may not be the approach you should take tomorrow.
Recommendations generated from successful campaigns:
1. Be human
2. Accurately state who you represent
3. Fit in: pay particular attention to the tone of the post you are replying to as well as the site that hosts it
4. Short and relevant posts are key
5. When dealing with an issue or customer service concern, acknowledge the importance of the issue. Perceived empathy is paramount to mitigate elevated frustration.
6. Don’t ignore conversation! Make sure that if an author or other comment replies to what you’ve said, you’re there with a timely and salient response.
7. Don’t sell: leave the hard sell and marketing-speak at home.
8. Don’t talk in clichés and canned sound bites: the more informal, the better. Rest assured, when you submit something quotable, it will end up quoted.
9. When replying to or addressing a specific person’s question, reference the individual by name. Delays exist when adding responses.
10. Prior to adding a hyperlink (to a more in-depth promotional or customer service message) in your post, make sure you are adding value to the participants and readers of the thread. Don’t spam, share info you know they will find RELEVANT …and tread lightly*….
11. Always be truthful
12. Positive, positive, positive
13. Never fight back – and know when to walk away
14. Add value: bring new information, inside details, and specific answers, or point users to great resources
15. Play matchmaker: link or reference third party commentary that is in support of the message you want to deliver
16. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver; bloggers have great memories.
17. What you’re typing is going on the “front page,” so represent yourself and your company well.
If you plan on engaging in multiple threads across multiple sites within the same vertical, make certain that you modify your responses to the various sites so as to not come across like a bot. People like to research engagers so don’t provide ammunition for a damning Google Search.
For long threads consider posting multiple posts into them to help further show an interest in their community and particular conversation – rather than just jumping in and never returning.
When you are able to make an investment of time, audit a site to learn (establishing a sense for tone, personalities, influencers), then follow that up by spending some time participating in strategic conversations before you begin to smartly market a campaign or promotion. The “cred” equity is valuable if you want to ensure making the deepest impact possible. And always remember to be transparent if your efforts are promotional in any way.
*Constant monitoring of tactics like this when seeding promotions, events, etc. is critical. Each web site has a different policy around spam and solicitous promotion, thus tread lightly.
If you have any questions regarding the recommendations provided in this document. Please contact Chris Lohman, Saint Street CEO, at 20