Create a social media engagement strategy to drive connection

Intelligent use of social media enables companies to engage customers and build credibility online, which underscores the importance of a social media engagement strategy.

This is part one of an article on social CRM strategies. For part two on which social media platforms are right for various businesses, click here.

Over the past decade, social networking has emerged as a way to connect with constituencies. Ten years ago, the most popular social media platforms were MySpace and Facebook. Now, credible options include Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr among others. This boom is partially because of a shift in users’ mentality. Ten years ago, social networks were a novelty. Now, they are ubiquitous and a key part of how we communicate.

Regardless of how large a business is, a social presence has become virtually nonnegotiable. Companies want to be present on the channels their customers use, so it makes sense to use these online communities to interact with customers through advertising and personal messaging. This helps to humanize large companies and build loyalty among their followers.

But a basic presence on a social network is not enough for companies to connect with existing customers and gain exposure to new ones. Social media engagement comes only from an investment in creating a diverse mix of content and employing the right strategies and best practices. Here are some ways to get noticed on social media and bond with your audience.

Hashtags as engagement opportunities

A key component of a social media engagement strategy is mastering the use of hashtags. Successfully deploying and managing hashtags offers a twofold benefit: Companies can engage customers in relevant social conversations and easily measure the reach of posts that contain the hashtag. 

Created by placing a “#” symbol before any word or group of words, a hashtag labels a conversation. Marking something with a hashtag turns any topic into a searchable keyword or link that enables people to quickly seek out and join online discussions. Companies can also use certain hashtags to learn about customer concerns or ideas from constituencies.

If a critical mass of people is talking about a hashtag, it’s a trending tag: that is, a popular hashtag with more people taking part in the conversation. Hashtags play a crucial role on Twitter but multiple social media platforms employ them as conversation drivers, including Facebook and Instagram.

Hashtags help companies foster engagement with their customers by having them rally around a particular topic or conversation. Companies can also create their own unique hashtags for specific campaigns or events, or participate in organic, weekly hashtags to stay at the top of their customers' minds. For example, the popular "#ThrowbackThursday" or "#TBT" hashtag enables people to share old photos and recollect the past. If a company creates and promotes a unique hashtag attached to a particular event, for example, it makes tracking the social media campaign much easier than just doing a word search.

How companies can benefit from social conversation

The goal of a social media engagement strategy employing hashtags is for the hashtags to garner as much exposure as possible, which is why it pays to research potential tags before you begin. Company-created hashtags centered on a particular product, for example, might not invite meaningful conversation. But companies can piggyback off existing hashtags to foster engagement.

When customers use social media, they want to join conversations that they care about. A hashtag concerning a company brand is a starting point, but it's even better for companies to jump into conversations that are already happening. These conversations reflect users’ concerns rather than company-generated ones.

But not all social media engagement is the result of company-driven conversation. On Twitter, companies have a few options to interact with people: retweets, favorites and replies. A retweet will show up on the account's feed and be seen by all of that account's followers. Favorites are essentially used as digital bookmarks and mean that the favoriter wants to keep a record of tweets he finds relevant (favorites are given their own tab in Twitter profiles). Replies are active, direct conversations with people that give the interaction exposure, both on the company's feed and the customer's.

A thriving social media engagement strategy sees every interaction as a potential to improve their relationship with a person. When people tag the company directly or use a campaign hashtag, consider one of the aforementioned options for interaction. Writing a personalized response is not necessary for each notification. Marking a positive mention as a favorite is sufficient and retweeting is only appropriate if your followers would find it beneficial or informative. By retweeting, you gain the benefit of citing the source.

This ability is also why you should consider limiting a tweet to less than 100 characters instead of the platform-imposed 140. Writing short, concise tweets will allow users to retweet your original message without cutting it off. This is partially why word images have become more popular. You can write an entire paragraph on an image, add the proper hashtags, and get the benefit of larger screen space by posting media. This can help convey complicated data while maintaining good social networking practices.

Sharing content and attracting influencers

Another way to gain exposure and make customers or other figures feel valued and recognized by your company is to share outside content. By promoting other people's content on your company's social media accounts, you can capitalize on other follower bases and maximize the exposure your account gets.

Reviews are popular and credible ones can substantially mitigate or grow your reputation among a hidden market on the cusp of purchasing. Consider reaching out to the critics that have the following you’re looking to include and collaborate. Offer to post their review on the company website, send them your latest product to review, or offer to participate in a podcast. Reviewers are constantly looking to increase their user base, and offering to collaborate helps both parties

Further, if you can establish a mutual relationship with other influencers that involves the reciprocal promoting of content, your company's account can gain credibility and drive the growth of your fan base.

Because companies should always look to use currently active hashtags to increase their reach, consider services like Keyhole to research the activity level of hashtags. The data is displayed showing the number of posts, users and impressions. It also shows which social media network, and what kind of posts, have the most activity. The users with the most active posts are likely your influencers in that market.

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