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How marketers should engage with their customers

How marketers should engage with their customers

By Molly Flatt, WOM Evangelist at 1000heads.

How are you? Those three little words cement our relationships. They’re the catalysts for our conversations. They’re so familiar that most of us barely acknowledge them, responding with an automatic ‘fine’ or ‘good’. But they’re still used as a mechanism of social connection every day, because they mean: I care. Before we talk about me, let’s talk about you.

Sadly, those three little words are absent from the relationships and conversations most brands have with their consumers. It is amazing how we can lose our social instincts when we become part of a company, labelling our fellow human beings ‘consumers’: gullible gluttons purely defined by their ability to spend.

It doesn’t feel good for either party, and many brands are actually desperate to recover their social senses and engage with their customers like people, not marketers.

Thankfully, social media is full of people telling us how they are. As a brand, you don’t even have to ask the question and risk a self-conscious answer - just listen - but once you’ve collected that feedback, you have to act on it. Your priority should not be reaching out but reaching in, making customers feel better by implementing the changes they’re crying out for.

However friendly and informative your response is, if it isn’t underpinned by action, it’s just so many empty platitudes, but once the internal mechanism for gathering feedback and effecting change is in place, you’re already half way to having a genuinely two-way dialogue with your customers.

As for the reaching out, the next question to ask is who are you? All the polls and demographic studies in the world won’t tell you about the individuals behind your database, but social media will.

When it comes to proactively encouraging customers to recommend you, you need to think about questions (‘what makes you happy? What do you find interesting about our product?’) before offering answers (‘this is our pre-decided brand message. This is our USP.’) By looking in depth at vocal customers’ passions, motivations, communities and tone of voice, you can identify exactly why they are being inspired to talk, and shape any engagement around those triggers.

So what does that engagement look like? Most brands have now accepted that it’s important to maintain a presence in social media such as a group blog, or a Twitter feed, and rightly so; when well managed, properly focused and fully resourced, these voices can be a useful extra point of contact with customers.

But the most powerful and effective engagement actually happens between customers, not between the customer and the brand. While a 2008 Gallop poll reported that only 10% think advertisers are trustworthy, a 2009 TNS poll indicated that “recommendations by friends” are the number one most trusted source across all media.

Brands must therefore start to think of themselves as social objects, using their products and services to trigger conversation between customers. If you’ve been listening to your customers, you’ll already know who your most outspoken advocates (or detractors) are and what they love, so need to create experiences to fuel that passion and foster long-term emotional engagement with the brand.

For example, last year Nokia invited some innovation-minded social media techies to OpenLabs in Helsinki, where they collaborated with the company’s own developers and each other to come up with some blue sky ideas. And Miele recently gave a selection of food bloggers VIP access to the BBC Good Food Show, where they bonded as a group and created content as they visited the stalls and played with the latest Miele products.

These projects tapped into what these people love to talk about and networked them with each other, whilst keeping the conversation and experiences anchored to the brand. And most word of mouth ignites offline, even if it then spreads to social media, so physically bringing consumers together in this way is a powerful tactic.

It may seem a lot of investment in a few people, but when it comes to word of mouth, quality of engagement is just as important as volume. Getting ten advocates spreading passionate and opinionated content to their communities is more valuable than a thousand repurposed and neutral press releases spread across the web.

Word of mouth engagement also provides an excellent opportunity to reach out to potential customers. By identifying people according to their passions, you can find a further network of likeminded communities who might find your offering relevant and inspiring.

And you can connect with customers who might never have otherwise be exposed to you by tailoring experiences to their interests – for example, a tech company might tap into rambling or hill walking communities by setting them a geo-locating challenge using their latest app.

So when you’re thinking about how to engage with your customers, just remember to ask: how, who and why. You know how to be social already, even if your brand forgot.

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