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How to engage with your customers online

Millions of Australians are using social media platforms to air their views in forums where personal opinion rules and professional objectivity is not required. SMEs need to get wise to it.

FacebookSmall-to-medium businesses (SMEs) cannot ignore social media. Statistics show that Australians are the world’s most active social networkers, almost doubling the amount of time they spent on social media sites in the last year. With so much of the population already engaged, these forums present a huge opportunity for small businesses. By establishing a presence on these forums, SMEs can inexpensively interact with consumers to achieve tangible business benefits.

Build your network

Social media outlets enable businesses to engage directly with consumers, creating a database of potential customers to market to. It is free to set up a fan page on Facebook or a Twitter profile to engage with customers. It is important to remember that social media takes the form of a conversation rather then a monologue. You cannot post content and walk away – you need to be prepared to remain involved in the conversation, making time to respond to people who want to engage with you.

It is also important to add value to online communities by providing your audience with something to talk about, whether it’s product information or a promotional initiative. Rather than regurgitating key messages or marketing spiel, your engagement on social media should aim to inspire, excite and build conversations with your customers. The ultimate goal is to get people telling their peers about your content, creating brand ambassadors who will promote your business for you.

Cost-effective promotions

Social media provides an inexpensive way for small businesses to run promotional campaigns. Simple ideas work best here. Make it quick and easy for consumers to get involved and provide prizes or offers that incentivise them to sign up.

A good example of an effective campaign is #CrustFreePizzaFriday – a Twitter campaign where consumers retweet the words “I’m entering @crust_pizza #CrustFreePizzaFriday to be in with a chance of winning.” The cost to the business is a free pizza or two but the clever campaign has boosted Crust’s Twitter following by keeping the brand front of mind with consumers on a weekly basis.

Real-time feedback on products

Social media can provide SMEs with valuable, cost-free insights when it comes to bringing new products to market. If you launch something new into the market, engage with your community and see what they think of it. If they like it you will generate positive buzz. If they don’t, you will have valuable customer insights that will help you take future releases in the right direction.

To use social media even more effectively, get your audience involved earlier in the planning process. By incorporating their feedback on new product or service proposals, you are more likely to end up with an offering that they would like to purchase. Consulting your audience also makes them feel involved, fostering loyalty and active preference.

Influence sales

Research has found that 90 percent of consumers are influenced by their peers when it comes to making purchasing decisions. Furthermore, 70 percent of these consumers trust the opinions that are posted online via social media forums, even if they do not know the person who is posting the content. This emphasises the dramatic impact social media can have on how consumers perceive your brand.

These statistics demonstrate how important it is to generate positive buzz on social media sites. By getting the community talking about your business, you are not only promoting your brand but also potentially influencing purchasing decisions in your favour.

Customer service

Consumers love a good gripe about everything from broadband services to ill functioning products, late taxis and poor customer service. Twitter is fast becoming the forum for airing customer grievances because it allows fellow disgruntled customers to add their two cents’ worth. When customers band together to complain about your brand in a public forum, it can have a serious impact on your reputation.

However, this type of negative talk can be easily addressed by SMEs. Social media forums provide an inexpensive way to track complaints and prevent them from escalating into a crisis situation. By stepping in and engaging transparently with consumers who have been affected, businesses can reduce the cycle of negative commentary. By offering to resolve the issue, businesses can demonstrate their commitment to customer service in a public forum. This will go a long way to restoring faith in a brand. Once aware of a problem, businesses can take the discussion offline and liaise privately with the complainant to resolve the issue.

Analytics and social media

To utilise social media effectively, it is vital for small businesses to monitor online conversations. This will give them an insight into what people are saying about their brand and allow them to engage with their audience.

There are a number of affordable options when it comes to tracking social media conversations. This can be done manually using search engines or the search functionality of commonly used tools such as Twitter. The upside of this approach is that it is free but bear in mind that it is a time consuming exercise and can be a drain on resources.

There are also tools on the market that will enable you to search across all social media forums to investigate the quality and sentiment of commentary around your brand. Some of these tools offer built-in workflows. These act as a social media hub, flagging relevant comments and referring them to the person best placed to respond. In this way you can automate the monitoring function, saving time and ensuring that nothing is missed.


Social media is an ideal tool for SMEs as it provides a cost-effective way to realise a number of businesses benefits. The key to making it work is effective planning. Don’t jump in and try to achieve everything at once, take time out to think realistically about what you would like to achieve and how much resources you are able to allocate.

A good rule of thumb is to start by listening. Monitor what people are saying about your brand, assess the sentiment and find out who the influencers are – positive and negative. Once you know how your brand is perceived, it will help you determine your social media goals. These could be anything from raising awareness of your brand to tackling negative perceptions or running promotions.

Once you have your objectives in place it is time to start engaging. Before you do, decide who will be responsible for social media outreach and set minimum engagement guidelines – once you are involved you need to maintain a presence!

One you have commenced your social media engagement, it is important to track the results. Continue monitoring conversations to find out whether your social media efforts are having an impact. This could be as easy as tracking the number of followers or fans that you have acquired or using a tracking tool to see whether the sentiment towards your brand has evolved. It is vital to measure against your pre-set goals and determine whether you need to step up or adjust your efforts.

These simple steps will help you to get involved in the world of social media and use it to progress your business objectives. Good luck!

Mark Allison is Director, Australaisia, for Webtrends (www.webtrends.com.au). Webtrends help you turn the data generated by your website, blogs and online campaigns into understanding of your customers.

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Mark Allison

Mark Allison

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