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Ten Best Practices of Online Engagement

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Congratulations!  You have entered the world of social media and are actively listening, monitoring, reading, and dipping your toes into engaging in conversations. You are monitoring social media mentions and measuring sentiment of yourself and your competitors. Moreover,  you are tracking larger industry trends, trying to understand what customers want, and listening for purchase intent. But as you know, listening is only the beginning stage of what you should be doing as part of your social media approach; engagement will make or break your efforts - after all, if no one talks to you online, the whole thing is a failed attempt. If you know what to listen for and how to separate signal from noise, it should propel you towards action and engagement the right way. If social media is a blend of art and science, engagement is definitely the art of it. If you approach it in a heavy-handed or inauthentic way, you may scare people off and mar your reputation. All too often we see companies and brands use these “new media” channels with “old media” mentality: in a race to amass the most Twitter followers regardless of their engagement with the brand, or broadcasting a message one-way instead of a two-way conversation. Here is a quick list of Do's and Don'ts to help guide your engagement efforts. Below are items 1-5 of my top 10 practices. 

1. Listen first: There is an old adage “God gave you two ears and one mouth”. A wise person listens twice as much as he/she talks in real life, and social media is no different. Listening is tremendously important (especially if  you are new to the whole thing). Through listening, you should aim to understand the nuances of each conversation channel, who the thought leaders and influencers are, what the group dynamics and social structures look like, and how consumer desires and pain points are evolving. 

2. Prioritize your outreach: Although it should be a goal, it is not possible to reach out to every person who mentions your brand name on Twitter or blogs. There are simply too many conversations, and not all of them are 100% relevant. For example, I track “social media monitoring”, “sentiment measurement”, “voice of customer”, “opinion mining”, among other keywords, alongside mentions of Biz360 and about 10 competitors. On a weekly basis, these searches give me several thousand mentions. Whereas it is easier to respond to many more tweets than blogposts, I find that reading and thoughtfully commenting on industry blogs takes infinitely more time. I cover 20-30 blogposts and forum mentions in a given week, if I'm lucky. Thoughtful responses just don't scale that well (more on this in point #3 below). And then there's the signal-to-noise problem, which is more serious the newer you are to the industry. The key to dealing with the volume of social media is having a really good tool in place that helps you triage and prioritize. In Attensity360, for example, I go in and sort relevant blogposts based on either impact (our measure that figures out how many people read an article) or reach, and address the top 20-40. 

3. Each interaction is unique; don't cut and paste: Given the volume of content that an average community manager has to deal with (see point #2), the job of engaging can be quite overwhelming, time-consuming and even stressful at times. The temptation is there to cut and paste the same tweet or blog response over and over. After all, how many different ways can you talk about social media monitoring or sentiment measurement? Turns out, there are a lot of ways. Even though two blogposts are seemingly about the same thing, they are never the same. And as we know, most of the action happens in blog comments anyway; blogs are living, breathing communities. This makes each blog conversation as unique as a snowflake, even if the titles may be similar, and your response should mirror that. Trust me, if you cut and paste, you will be called out. Why should anyone respond to you if you didn't care to take the time to provide an original thought? It's the same caveat that cautions to never write form letters when you do blogger outreach. 

4. Both positive and negative mentions are important: I remember one Twitter chat that I attended. One of the questions discussed was whether you should listen more to positive or negative mentions of yourself and your competitors. The virtual "room" was proverbially split. My opinion is that you should do all of the above. Listen to those who are having a good experience with your brand, engage with them and empower them to evangelize further. Listen to those who are saying negative stuff about you, and try to help them; you should always use negative mentions as an opportunity to learn more and get better. Listen to those who have a bad experience with your competitors to see if there's an opportunity to provide a solution to someone in need. At the same time, take the time to gather competitive intelligence and understand what works by listening to those who love your competitors. Finally (and this is often missed), you should listen to non-users of your product category who are contemplating entering the industry; listen for signals of interest in the larger solution type.

5. Understand loose ties vs. strong ties and when it's appropriate to go to the well: Before social media, you could only keep in touch with as many people as you could call or email. Social media has changed that — now you can “keep tabs” on considerably more people, and the actual interaction has gotten a lot easier. As a result, our networks grew. Because we still can count our best friends on the fingers of our hands (and perhaps our toes too), we now have more loose ties than before; you don't actually have 1,000 best friends on Facebook, do you? And herein lies the nuance: just because you are friends with some folks on a social network does not entitle you to pound your entire network for a personal favor. You can't amass 5,000 Twitter followers and then direct message them to retweet your last tweet (in fact, you probably shouldn't do that to anyone who is not one of your best friends or significant other). People will choose to pass around your message if they find value in it, but loose connections will typically not do things for you as a personal favor. If you are found “going to the well” too many times, you will probably lose your professional credibility before too long. Don't get me wrong; it's completely acceptable to ask questions and do modest self-promotion. However, you must pay attention to the rate at which your message is amplified and responded to. If you are finding that your message is not making as much of a splash as you expected, create something better next time, but never force the issue by asking individual people to retweet or respond.

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6. Build relationships; become genuinely interested in people: As you participate more and more and contribute value, you will grow your network of like-minded individuals, thought leaders and potential customers. Building networks is not new, but it is more efficient with tools like Twitter. Network building, online or off, rests on a key tenet: meeting people is easy; nurturing relationships is significantly harder. As Dale Carnegie wrote in his book “How To Win Friends And Influence People”, to be interesting, you must first become interested in others. Let's translate this to social relationship building. If you approach Twitter or any other conversation platform as a way to "pimp" your message all day long, you will most certainly fail. There's nothing wrong with light self-promotion, as long as you do other stuff too. Follow people with the end goal of talking with them, not with the end goal of them following you. When I decide whom to follow, I examine their stream first, to make sure that I would like talking to this person. If (s)he has 100% broadcasts and no @ replies, I won't follow, unless it's a breaking news source. I hold myself and my Twitter community to the same standard of interaction. When people share news about themselves, interact. When people share information that you find valuable, don't hesitate to share via a retweet, even if, and especially if, it has nothing to do with you. 

7. Obey the golden rule, with customers and competitors alike:
Continuing the theme of relationship building from #6, what you say and how you say it on the web, has everything to do with your success. Remember a simple rule and one of my favorite sayings: "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice". Although some social media personalities have successfully created their brands by being rude and brash, they are an outlier vs. the norm. For the most part, the rest of us have to build our networks the old fashioned way: by being helpful, providing value and being someone that people want to grab an in-person or virtual beer with. Here's an important corollary: the golden rule applies to how you handle competitors as well. The advertising paradigm has been for competitor A to slam competitor B, and vice versa, in TV commercials (think Verizon vs. AT&T). This doesn't work in social media. Since the social web is much more transparent, your number one competitive weapon is honesty and ability to articulate your value and thought leadership, not slamming your competitors in public. On top of that, social media is a nimble world that's still being built, which means that someone who is your competitor today may be your partner tomorrow. 

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8. Front page of New York Times: When building relationships and obeying golden rules by blogging, tweeting, commenting and such, don't lose sight of the fact that you are producing content, which will live on the web for the rest of your life, or until we stop using the Internet - both events are not in your immediate future hopefully. As a result, you have to strike a balance between being personal, real and approachable, but still having a filter. Yes, even if you are tweeting for a brand, you should infuse some kind of humanness into it (pros and cons of tweeting from a personal vs. company logo account are forthcoming in a future blogpost). We are human, and none of us are exempt from emotions and oversharing them via social networks. But before saying something in a moment of passion, please remember that what you put on the web is written in proverbial stone for the rest of your life, and can and will be used against you when you expect it least. If you are ashamed of your tweet being on the front page of the New York Times, you probably shouldn't tweet it.

9. Make engagement a corporate culture, get buy-in: Aligning corporate objectives and making sure that all departments is aligned is key in survival of your social media plan. Because social media cuts across the rigid silos that have been carefully constructed over the years, your organization needs to be prepared to embrace it from every perspective. Should you be participating to bolster your brandbuilding efforts, or for market research, or for customer service? Yes! You need to think through how that will look, given your organizational structure. Does each team own its own Twitter account: one for support, one for corporate voice, or one for sales, or does everything happen through one account and get triaged via the community manager? Do you have best practices and SocialCRM tools set up to handle the flow of social media conversations? And most importantly, does your organization really embrace and see the value in social media? It's easy to say that everyone does, but in reality it takes a certain corporate DNA to make social not only work, but resonate through the entire organization. Companies that do the best are relentlessly service oriented and focused on the long term, as well as able to execute in the short term. At the end of the day, incentives need to be aligned in such a way, that everyone knows how social media helps the company, their department, and their individual careers. This point alone merits an entire blogpost, so I will leave it alone for now. 

Tape Measure
 
10. Track, measure, repeat: They say that if you fail to plan, you  plan to fail. I say that if you fail to measure, you will definitely fail. Measuring does two things: it helps you understand where you are today, and drive a plan that will get you from point A to point B. Secondly, it allows you to benchmark against your plan in short-term chunks to ensure that you are steadily moving towards plan B. If things aren't going the way you anticipated, you need to evaluate, understand what happened and course-correct along the way. Remaining flexible and nimble is key to being able to take advantage of insights that come from measurement. How do you measure the results of your social engagement; what metrics do you use? Well, that really depends on what your objectives are (see #9). If customer service is your objective, take a snapshot of your sentiment at day 1, using a tool like Attensity360,, and trend it across time, and against your competitors, to verify that positive is going up and negative is going down. If brand awareness is your goal, share of voice is key. If your goal is engagement, you should be tracking Facebook interactions, Twitter retweets and @ replies, velocity and reach of each message, blog comments, etc. If you need financial metrics like revenue and ROI, you need to effectively track each lead from point of origin on a social network, all the way through a sales funnel, to the end point of purchase. Sophisticated SocialCRM systems are key here. Whatever you measure, you need to know why are doing it and be disciplined in measuring only what matters in channels that matter to you.

Original article here.

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