To build social engagement, focus on the conversation |

To build social engagement, focus on the conversation

John Seelmeyer

Social media provides a powerful tool to gather information about the desires of customers, assuming that companies are willing to move beyond definitions of “engagement” that are little more than counting the number of customer “likes” on cute pictures.

“People say they want involvement, but what does that really mean?” asks Vanessa Vancour, coordinator of the Nevada Media Alliance sponsored by the Center for Advanced Media Studies and the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Some savvy companies are finding the answer: Rather than viewing their social media platforms as a way to talk at potential customers, they’re using social-media conversations to generate useful information about their target markets.

“The challenge in doing this is that you have to be either a little bit scrappy or very wealthy,” says Lorna Shepard, digital strategy director at Noble Studios in Reno.

Assuming for a moment that your company isn’t very wealthy — or isn’t convinced that it’s worthwhile to invest heavily in developing customer profiles from social media — Shepard suggests the use of simple questions to learn about customers.

“If you ask the right questions, it’s like a quick little focus group,” she says.

Ask them if about their most frustrating problem when they’re booking travel. Ask them about the one thing they would like to fix about their jeans.

Note that these aren’t quantitative questions in which someone totes up a score and creates a spreadsheet. These are open-ended questions that help companies see trends and hear what’s on the minds of their customers. They are questions that are likely to generate the best sort of conversation — the conversation of two customers about your product, with you in the room to listen.

“Don’t serve it up as a problem,” says Shepard. “What is the most objective, neutral way that you can ask the question?”

If nothing else, that information allows companies to develop better messaging. But done well, a two-way conversation can provide lots of information about a company’s audience.

“At the end of the day, targeting a specific group of people always will be a lot less expensive than targeting everyone,” says Shepard.

In a post on Noble Studios’ blog, Shepard suggested, “Use your social media channels to take the time to understand why a person says what they do in this medium. Go beyond solving their issue and understand why they have that issue.”

She suggests supporting the quantitative information from open-ended questioning with some hard facts, even the basic data about followers that’s available from Facebook and LinkedIn.

“It’s about getting you out the world of your assumptions,” says Shepard.

For wealthier companies, specialized software to sort through the torrent of social media is one of the cornerstones of the emergence of Big Data as a marketing tool.

Sometimes, Vancour says, businesses are reluctant to use social media to ask meaningful questions because they want to be viewed as experts by their customers. Asking a question creates vulnerability.

But more often, she says, customers respond favorably.

“People like to give their opinion,” she says. “People liked to be asked.”

But effective true engagement with customers can’t be a one-way street, Vancour says. Businesses need to follow through with customers who take time to respond.

“It’s all about relationship-building,” she says. “It’s about going into a situation and not expecting anything in return.”