Jen Grossman, owner of Irresistibly Delicious, a Toronto-based bakery she operates from home, has found meaningful ways to interact with existing customers and meet new ones through extensive use of social marketing on Facebook and Pinterest.
"Almost all of my regular customers are on Facebook," she said. "I can put something out there, like a picture on Facebook [and] get comments and likes. It gets out there and attracts new customers. I'm able to reach a lot of people in one second, with the click of a button."
In the new always-on, 24/7 retail universe, where customers want to be able to contact anyone, at any time, it's smart customer relationship strategy to make your company available via social networks. But which websites and tools help most with social customer engagement? Why do Pinterest and Facebook work for Grossman's baked goods rather than other social tools?
The key to finding the best social platform for customer engagement is to look at the kind of marketing messages being sent and to understand the audience receiving those messages. According to experts, some questions to consider include: Is it a product that people will want to peruse while they're relaxing at home, or is this something business-related? Will the imagery surrounding the product get an audience excited? Or does the organization simply want to field questions from customers? The answers to these questions can help companies find the best fit for social engagement.
Social engagement giants: Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn
Different social networks attract different types of audiences and offer different specialties. Facebook, for example, is currently the most popular social media site for businesses, according to Tim Peter, president of Tim Peter & Associates.
"Everybody should be on Facebook, to a degree," Peter said. "It works best for consumer-facing brands [but] everybody is on Facebook."
Facebook tends to revolve around friends, family and shared interests and can be a powerful medium if the product being sold is something people are genuinely interested in looking at and talking about -- mobile phones, travel destinations or luxury goods, for example. Facebook is probably not an ideal place for large business-to-business companies to engage with customers for the same reason. The typical Facebook audience member is more interested in interacting with "friends" than learning about what may be rather abstract products or services, Peter said.
Twitter, meanwhile, is like a cocktail party where the attendees quickly drift in and out of conversations. Organizations with lots of newsy content worth sharing will find that Twitter is an effective platform, Peter explained. But companies that don't change much and don't produce interesting tidbits of information will find Twitter far less useful.
Twitter can also be an effective platform for customer service -- where organizations can respond to customer queries and requests. Cable television giant Comcast and the Hyatt Concierge hotel chain have made excellent use of Twitter in this way, according to Peter.
LinkedIn is the inverse of Facebook. Just as people use Facebook to relax and focus on friends, family and personal interests, LinkedIn is often used at work, and revolves around coworkers, careers and networking. "If you're a real business person, you need a LinkedIn page," Peter said, adding that it's also a great place to find distribution partners and other prospective business partners. Organizations looking to employ new talent may find that LinkedIn is a goldmine as well.
YouTube and Pinterest: Getting Creative
What if an organization wants to make use of sites like YouTube or Pinterest? "YouTube is an interesting one," Peter said. "It could work for everybody, but how you make it work could vary widely."
Peter recalled the example of the viral Neverwet video, an advertisement about a chemical product that keeps liquid from seeping into fibers. "They made a really neat, viral video. It's fun and visually captivating, despite having low production values," he said.
For companies that have a story to tell, YouTube could be an excellent fit -- but the story must be conveyed in a way that translates well to the medium of video.
Pinterest, however, appeals to a niche group: The audience skews heavily female and the medium is highly visual. Therefore, the platform can work well for a company that has a shiny new product to show off, for example. Other popular topics on Pinterest include food, travel, fashion, home design, arts and crafts and party planning. Companies selling products or services with low visual appeal -- and little appeal to women -- will find social marketing on Pinterest to be a challenging experience.
Irresistibly Delicious' Grossman frequently uses Pinterest to post pictures of baked goods like rainbow cakes, challah bread, cake pops and even flourless brownies for Passover. The goal is to entice Facebook fans to make an order. Pinterest is a natural fit for the bakery because of the highly visual nature of the business, said Grossman, who is very up front about her target demographic.
"It's typically a female, usually a mother, between the ages of 30 and 50," she said. "It's the look of my baked goods in the pictures, the colors. Pinterest helps me use the best pictures to capture people's attention."
Wanted: Time-saving social tools
Social marketers also need to get hip to social media monitoring and automation tools, which can make the process of reaching out to customers far more manageable, according to experts. But there is a right way and wrong way to go about it.
People tend to get overinflated expectations when it comes to what the tools can do and often forget the importance of creating a well-rounded strategy and workflow. A best practice is to create a strategy then find tools that can help the organization execute that strategy.
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Social media automation software can help companies preschedule and automate the task of posting Tweets or Facebook status updates. There are also tools that monitor sites and send alerts when people discuss specific products or services that an organization sells. A growing trend are products that have both automation and media monitoring capabilities rolled into one -- these types of sentiment analysis products are no longer relegated to the domain of companies that can afford expensive tools that can process terabytes of big data. HootSuite and Sendible both offer sentiment analysis as an add-on feature, as well as extensive automation.
Two major problems plaguing social media monitoring and sentiment analysis programs have to do with sarcasm and colloquialism. It's really quite difficult to program a sentiment analyzer to detect sarcasm, and it seems few have got the hang of it yet, according to IT analysts. Nice means exactly that -- nice -- until someone develops a more advanced and affordable sentiment analyzer. It's also hard to spot colloquialisms -- someone calling a pair of shoes badass, for example, will likely read as negative with sentiment analysis tools. The best ways to deal with these issues are to have real people review sentiment analyses and to know the language of your audience.
Automation is critical to any organization that wants to get serious about social CRM and social marketing. Peter said organizations should consider a fairly basic management program like HootSuite, SocialOomph, or even something more modest, like TweetDeck. When a company starts out, it doesn't need a behemoth costly tool.
"It's best to start small," Peter said. "Make sure you understand your workflows and process. Then, move up to more robust products that can add additional layers and services."
To sum up, experts advise that it's important to know your product, know your audience and know your customer engagement strategy. Organizations with a solid handle on these things should have no trouble finding the right social media channels and engaging customers.