When it comes to building online communities and interacting with customers, social networks can be a big help — especially for small businesses that can’t afford to launch their own private online communities.
Communispace Corporation, an online-communities marketing technology and services firm, believes that online communities can help companies connect with their customers, capture marketing insights, and also build brand advocates within the community.
Before jumping on a social network to interact with your customers and clients, consider the following best-practice advice from Debi Kleiman, vice president of product marketing at Communispace. These tips will help you build a better, smarter relationship in the socialsphere.
Tip #1: Go where your customers congregate
Some businesses simply start a profile on a popular social networking site and hope customers will find them there. Kleiman says that a smarter way to get started is to find out where your customers already are.
“It is smarter to join people where they already congregate. These customers have already formed the social glue that holds online relationships together, so you don’t have to create a new space,” says Kleiman.
For example, if you are a travel agent, start communicating and participating in the social spaces where those interested in travel already gather online. Start out by being a good resource — offer advice and talk without a sales pitch.
Remember, there is no single best social networking tool that will fit all businesses and marketers. The goal, Kleiman says, is to start participating where your customers already gather and then build towards the larger goal of being the resource and forging relationships.
Tip #2: Stop broadcasting and start listening
One mistake businesses that venture into the world of online social networking often make, according to Kleiman, is that they forget to “listen” and concentrate on the “broadcast” aspect, which is sending out marketing messages.
Marketers and business owners usually just scratch the surface of communicating with clients. A business can learn a lot from continuously talking with people who join them on social networking sites.
Kleiman believes that building online communities, using tools like chat rooms and discussion forums, requires the same skills as conversing over social networks. Those who are successful demonstrate their ability to listen to their communities.
“If you only broadcast you will fail. You have to build a relationship with conversation and listen to your community and respond to them,” says Kleiman.
Tip #3: Ramp up your response time
Kleiman says that a successful community depends on you being in there every day to show people that you are listening.
While listening to what the people in your social networking space say is important, it is equally important to respond. Your response tells people that you listen and hear what they are saying.
To demonstrate that you are listening, you need to respond directly to questions — or ask your own questions to make the community members feel valuable.
Tip #4: Show the human face behind your business
Kleiman recommends that small business owners use a “human” online voice instead of a business presence. People in social networks and online communities create relationships with people, not businesses.
Friends don’t “pitch” friends on social networks — they converse. To get relationships started, you have to be a resource, not a sales pitch. Again, this goes back to being a good social listener and doing more in the community than just broadcasting business messages.
Kleiman recommends that you use a picture, and not always a brand logo, to remind people that you are human. You should also stay on point in your conversations but be friendly in your conversations by dropping the corporate tone.
Everyone will make mistakes, but if you own up to the people in your social space when you do, they will be forgiving. You don’t have to be the expert right away. That’s a part of being a human in the community.
Tip #5: Give them a reason to show up
Kleiman says that successful communities need “social glue” to hold them together. There has to be value for people in the interaction, and there needs to be a reason for people to be a part of the social network.
“A dentist, for example doesn’t use social networking to talk about customer appointments and his business. Instead, he might talk about dental hygiene for kids and offer education topics for discussion,” says Kleiman.
Use your social space to converse, to solve a problem or to educate people, versus using it to talk about your product. Make sure you provide ample opportunity for people to network and communicate with each other to grow your community.
For more information about communicating with online communities, visit the Communispace Web site. Communispace marketing and communication experts, like Debi Kleiman, contribute helpful advice and best practice tips on the company’s Verbatim blog.
Vangie Beal is a veteran online seller and frequent contributor to ECommerce-Guide.com. She is also managing editor of Webopedia.com. You can tweet with her online @AuroraGG.
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