The Rules of Engagement: How Social Media Has Changed the Landscape
Brand awareness and loyalty are critical pieces to the marketing puzzle for every small business. Consistent efforts to engage can result in lead generation, customer retention and long-term growth. However, so often the branding focus gets lost in the mix and companies become online billboards, focused on sending out messages while forgetting about the importance of real, true engagement. Are you doing what it takes, as a small business owner, to reach the right demographics through a system of targeted engagement? Do you have a process or are you throwing things out hoping something catches on?
Social media should play a large role in external branding efforts. It makes sense; chances are high that the public any given small business owner is looking to reach is spending the majority of their online time on multiple social networks. They're looking for connections, they're looking for information and they're looking to engage. Most companies understand this and have started to at least build company social network accounts and pages, but, what about taking it one step farther?
Many larger companies have designed internal and external Enterprise Social Networks or ESNs: networks designed to foster connectivity, communication and knowledge sharing inside a branded community structure. Internal ESNs focus on employee connectivity while external ESNs reach out to targeted publics, a perfect structure for small businesses looking for growth and solid online ROIs. In fact, according to a recent Deloitte study, by the start of 2014, 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies will utilize an ESN in one way or another.
It's become apparent in recent years that targeted engagement is the best way to increase growth. Towers Watson revealed that companies with highly effective communications - like those encouraged by ESNs - demonstrated a 47 percent higher return rate for shareholders over the last five years than those without.
Increasing External Engagement
Chances are that your target markets spend time on social networks. The usage rates can be surprising at first glance: there are over 1 billion Facebook users and 500 million Twitter users, the average online users spends one third of all online time on social networks. Seems like a great way to engage right? But, what about the distractions?
The larger, more traditional social networks were built to connect individuals; businesses were an afterthought. While businesses can and should create accounts to build connections on these sites, the ability to truly engage is limited by distractions. The problem? Because users are exposed to so much information at a time, their attention is spread thin. Even if you get a friend or follower to check out the information you posted, you're likely to lose them to a friend's status update, a link to an external site, a photo tag or an advertisement. Social networks are meant to be distracting, this takes the focus away from your company and limits the effectiveness of a social media strategy.
This does not, however, change the desire of your customers and potential customers to engage through social media. Customers want to learn about the brands they do business with. They want to sense that they are seen as important and they want to know that their opinions are heard, recognized and valued, especially by the small businesses they start relationships with. The need for engagement exists in a real and urgent form, but the traditional forms are inherently limited, sometimes even counterintuitive.
Instead of turning into a real lose-lose situation, small business owners can use the paradigm to their advantages. If your potential customers are spending time on social networks, they understand how to communicate effectively through them. They know when they are expected to respond, how to reach out and how to connect. Why not integrate social technologies into your own branded environment?
Social media tools that can be incorporated into customized social communities, or external ESNs, allow brands to set up social networks that are open to the public, allow for instant communication and sharing coupled with relevant, helpful content marketing/blogging. Creating an environment that puts the focus on your small business, without external distractions, using formats that your customers are already familiar with (and can be integrated into traditional social networks) allows for the creation of brand ambassadors who spread your company's message on their own.
Building a Community of Engagement
Are you ready to take your engagement tactics to the next level? To be a leader among small business owners and your competition by creating an inviting online environment where you can direct the focus? Now is the time to get started.
Look for online blog templates and platforms (Social HubSite, for example) that allow you to upload your company logo and encourage connectivity. To take a more integrated approach, search for a local web designer who would be able to work toward your specific goals.
Create an atmosphere where your customers and potential customers can come to ask questions, learn about specials, gather information related to your industry and to get to know more about the brand you're building or have built. Engagement fosters connections, connections foster conversions, the link cannot be overlooked. Put effort into marketing your community and consistently give reasons for users to return. Because of the importance of consistency, working with a high quality virtual provider to manage your ESN may be something to look into for long-term success.
Creating a custom ESN is a new yet proven way to shift the branding focus away from the distractions of traditional social media and toward your brand, exactly where you want it to be.
Larger companies have caught on and switched the focus in this way. Sephora's "Beauty Talk" allows fans to gather to discuss trends and to get access to exclusives. Startup Revolution created a network for business owners to connect, share ideas and find information easily. Each of these examples allows users to create profiles, like traditional social networks, offering a different experience than a traditional blog.
Branding matters now more than ever, focusing on building internal brand ambassadors may be an important and effective initiative to make this happen. The time to try something new, to think outside of the box and to build a community that functions in a way that allows you to engage your target market like never before, is now.
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