In addition to branding and publicity services, small businesses and non-profits periodically seek out my advice on social media strategy. While every case is unique, there are (in my opinion) some common—and avoidable—mistakes that many small businesses make. In this series, I will discuss five of these mistakes, in order of significance:
and offer some potential solutions you can implement on your own, or with the help of a consultant.
You LIKE me! You really LIKE me!
Every brand would like a bigger social media following, but success is defined by so much more than just the number of Facebook page likes or Twitter followers you have. The most successful brands on social media are effective at getting their audiences to engage with their content, and take cues from their followers as to what the market wants from them.
For marketers, the real power of social media lies in its ability to serve as a conduit between producer and consumer. Social media is an invaluable tool for businesses to humanize themselves to potential customers. So I find it surprising how many small brands seem unable or unwilling to use social media for this very purpose. And I am amazed by the number of solicitations I see every day from internet hucksters, offering thousands of guaranteed page likes or followers—for a price, of course—as if users were a currency or commodity with a fixed rate of exchange.
The truth is, user engagement is a commodity—and a valuable one at that. 100 followers who engage with you and share your content are far more valuable than 1,000 followers who don't. Unfortunately, too many small brands seem more concerned with quantity than quality. This is a clear example of not valuing user engagement. But what does it mean to devalue user engagement? It may seem like semantics, but there is a distinction here. Not valuing user engagement is a (misguided) perception or philosophy, and the subsequent behavior of a brand toward its followers. The devaluing of user engagement is the real world result of the brand's indifference toward its audience. In other words, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you place little or no value on user interaction, then any interaction you do have with your users is of decreased value to others.
How might this play out in the real world? Let's turn to the hypothetical small business examples we've been using since the beginning of this series:
Acme Paving, Inc.
is a commercial paving & road repair contractor that relies on municipal contracts for 70% of its annual revenue.
is a suburban coffee shop, offering baked goods, free wi-fi, and a reading area with a small libary of books & magazines.
And let's explore a few examples of online behavior that actually lowers the value of user engagement, beginning with Cathy's Café...
Cathy has hit a pretty good social media groove, offering specials and discounts on Foursquare, and frequently posting photos to Facebook and Twitter via Instagram. But let's see how she handles user engagement...
Her customers have been sharing their photos and writing positive online reviews of the shop, but Cathy is so preoccupied with her day-to-day duties, she hasn't noticed or responded. Over time, user engagement with her pages starts to dwindle, and Cathy is forced to spend more money on sponsored advertising in order to remain visible on social media.
A faulty thermostat causes one of Cathy's commercial brewers to malfunction, resulting in a batch of coffee that is lukewarm and weak. The staff unknowingly serves the coffee to several carry-out customers on a busy weekday morning until a regular visitor complains. Cathy promptly tosses the bad batch, shuts down the faulty brewer, and replaces the customer's order. But over the next few days, the shop receives some negative comments on Facebook from others who received the bad product before the problem was caught. Since she's already fixed the problem, she decides to delete the negative comments, and assumes no one will see them.
Cathy receives a number of personal messages every week via Facebook and Twitter, asking who is playing in the reading room on a given Friday night. This information is available on her website and under the "Events" tab on the shop's Facebook page. She grows weary of answering the same questions over and over again, so she begins to ignore most of these messages. Occasionally, she responds to one with a link to her schedule and no other comments whatsoever.
In the first scenario, Cathy's indifference to what her customers are saying about her brand is a negative influence. She hasn't bothered to thank her customers for their loyalty and support, or to do something as simple as click the "Like" or "Favorite" button when she receives a compliment via Facebook or Twitter. Eventually, her customers have no real incentive to interact with her brand, or to share content that she posts to social media. Without some sort of acknowledgement or recognition, the act of engaging with a brand carries no value to the consumer. Cathy appears to place little or no value on her customers' comments, and as a result, she actually lowers the value of engagement for her customers as well.
This second scenario illustrates a huge mistake, one that really hurts a lot of brands. Besides being rude and offensive to the customer, deleting a legitimate complaint communicates to the public that Cathy's business has little concern for customer satisfaction. And Cathy is dead wrong for thinking no one will notice...
When a user writes a post on a Facebook page, that content is served to the network in a number of ways. First of all, anyone who visits the page can read that user's comments up until the moment they are deleted. Also, the user's network of friends will see the user's post to the page in the News Feed. Here is the interesting part: the news feed is an archive, a copy of content that has been posted elsewhere on the network. What this means is that the user's comments to the page live on in the news feed, even after those comments are deleted from the page itself. So, imagine the reaction someone might have when he sees in his news feed that a friend has posted a comment on Cathy's Café page, he clicks on that comment to read it in its entirety, but then he receives a message that says the comment has been deleted by the page administrator.
Clearly, deleting negative comments lowers a brand's credibility on social media. But it also lowers the perceived value of user engagement. If one negative comment has been deleted, how many others were deleted before it? And how reliable then are any positive comments that may be left? Suddenly, the positive reviews don't carry as much weight as they once did. This is devaluing user engagement. Whenever possible, social media managers should read and respond to negative comments from a customer service perspective, within plain view of the audience.
In the third scenario, I can sympathize with Cathy a bit. It can be frustrating to put all your effort into scheduling and promoting an event, putting all the information in plain sight and within easy reach of your customers, only to be inundated with "stupid questions" to which the answers should be obvious. But whether she likes it or not, Cathy is still in the food service industry; answering questions for customers is part of her daily routine (her specials are written on a blackboard, but people still ask about them).
What matters most here is that the user has taken the time to write a personal message to the page administrator. This is exactly the kind of user that Cathy wants to engage in a meaningful way. Writing a personal note is a very intimate form of engagement, one that indicates the user is serious about becoming a customer, and could become a cheerleader for the brand. But Cathy's brush-off response makes the user feel like serving the customer is an inconvenience.
Here are some practical solutions to the above scenarios...
During her evening desktop time, Cathy takes a few minutes to look over her notifications, and see where users are commenting on her photos. She clicks the "Like" or "Favorite" icon next to comments and retweets, so the users know that she saw them.
She also makes a note of which of her menu items receive the most social media attention, and she features those items on her menu a little longer.
On particularly engaging posts that receive a high volume of likes, shares, or favorites, Cathy adds a simple comment like this:
Thank you, everyone! We love hearing from our customers!
Instead of deleting the negative posts from her page, Cathy responds to each with the following comment:
We are SO sorry! Please send us a personal message with your contact information, and we'll send you a voucher for a free cup of coffee.
The next day, she injects a little humor, posting a photo of herself holding the broken thermostat and a sign that reads, "Oops!" with this caption:
Oops! We ran a bad batch yesterday. Sorry, folks. We caught the culprit. Brewer's FIXED!
Since most of the questions she receives are similar in nature, Cathy types up a form response with a personal touch:
Thanks for asking about our live music Fridays. This week, we're featuring [Performer] starting at 7pm. You can check out our full schedule at [link to schedule]. Be sure to ask about our [featured menu item]; it's delicious, made with locally grown ingredients, and big enough to share. We hope to see you and a friend on Friday!
These are private messages, so Cathy can use the same text each time. She also takes advantage of the opportunity to re-post the schedule to her social media pages.
In each of these solutions, Cathy finds a way to show her audience that she values their participation on social media. She incentivizes her audience to engage with her going forward, and thereby increases the value of each interaction to other users.
Now, let's examine the value of user engagement in Acme Paving's social media campaigns...
While Acme's PR machine is humming along on Facebook and Twitter, the business development team is using LinkedIn to build familiarity with their brand among commercial real estate developers. In my previous article, Acme was planning to bid on the parking lot for a new shopping center being proposed by an out-of-state developer with whom the company has never done business. Acme's business development manager wants to make sure project leads at the development firm see a case study from a similar project Acme completed a few years ago.
Acme's business development manager belongs to a number of LinkedIn business discussion groups related to retail development, commercial paving and hardscaping, engineering, and construction. He is focused on getting the case study in front of this one particular developer, so he decides to post a link to the study and start a discussion in the same retail development discussion group in which the developer's program manager is a regular contributor.
The discussion garners some positive comments—not from the company Acme is courting—but from the developer for whom Acme did the original project profiled in the study. On top of that, the project manager with the original developer sends Acme's business development manager a private message, asking permission to share the case study in an engineering and site excavation discussion group. Since this particular developer has no in-state projects on the near horizon, Acme's business development manager disregards the comments and sends a terse reply to the private message:
Sure. Go right ahead.
This is a missed opportunity, and a clear underestimation of the value of user engagement. The business development manager is so focused on landing this new account, he almost completely ignores a very satisfied client. By his reasoning, the user who engaged with his content has little to offer him because there are no immediate new business opportunities with the original developer.
What he seems to be forgetting is that with every major bid, Acme must submit a list of...references. The PM who contacted him is the single most important reference on his list, and could be his ticket to winning this next project. But by disregarding the PM's comments and being so short in his reply, he's missed his opportunity to strengthen the business relationship and get a dynamite recommendation for his company.
The solution? Simple, a little more engagement on behalf of Acme's BDM...
After reading the positive comments from the developer's PM, Acme's business development manager adds the following comment of his own:
Thank you. This was an incredibly challenging project, and it represented a huge achievement for Acme. Our engineers took great care to come up with a solution that allowed for greater pedestrian visibility and safety, while minimizing the impact to the surrounding environment and preserving the quality of the ground water for property owners living outside the municipal service area. What other challenges have you encountered on current projects?
He also sends the following private message to the PM:
Thanks again for commenting on my discussion. Yes, please share this case study on any forum where you feel it will be valuable.
As you may know, Acme is planning to bid on a similar project with [New Developer]. I want to list you and your firm as as reference, and I was hoping you would be willing to write a letter of recommendation to accompany the bid. Are you available for a lunch meeting sometime next week?
In this solution, Acme's BDM has managed to advance the discussion within his LinkedIn group and pave the way (pun intended) for further comments. He's also taken advantage of an opportunity to secure a valuable reference, and to keep the lines of communication open with an important client.
It really isn't difficult to make a positive impact on social media. All it takes is a little effort and some common courtesy. Of course, small brands that struggle the most with this are are usually guilty of Mistake # 1, and I'll address this in my final installment.
TJ Barranger is a branding and publicity consultant in the Baltimore, Maryland area with a background in business communications and online content management. He specializes in assisting small business and non-profit clients. Agree/disagree with this article? Share your comments via e-mail: TJ@TJBCreative.com.