"Community" and "communication" both draw their meanings from the Latin "communicare," meaning to impart, share, or make common. With social media, consumers have a new avenue for sharing their thoughts and brand experiences with friends, family, and followers, building their personal community while communicating the peaks and pitfalls of these brand interactions.

But, as social media's popularity continues to gain momentum, companies must grow their social presence into active participation, thereby using social networks to develop a dialogue with these vocal consumers. Yet, while embracing these customers is paramount, many companies don't know how to approach these potential brand advocates and harness their value in a way that's advantageous to both their customer bases and their brands.

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Justin Ramers, director of social media at The Active Network, explains that there are two sides to social media: social media marketing and social sharing. When social media came to be, marketers primarily aimed to grow their following so they could broadcast their brand message on the one-to-many level. However, as social media and its users evolve, social sharing and integration encourage "many-to-many" interactions, enabling and empowering customers to share experiences with their networks—groups inevitably more likely to respond to promotions from friends.

For many companies, this ability to amplify word of mouth to their advantage still eludes their most successful marketing and service professionals. "Mobile and social are not about technology; they're about a lifestyle," says Vala Afshar, chief customer officer and CMO at Enterasys. The average consumer remains constantly connected because of her fear of missing out. From minute details to passionate opinions, consumers now incorporate social media as part of their daily lives, making this channel one that carries great promise and possibilities.

To gain a better understanding of which customers they should target, companies have taken to social scoring sites, like Klout and Kred, to evaluate their customers' social influence. But, as Aaron Biddar, CEO of Social123, highlights, scoring sites calculate their findings based on the users' number of friends and followers, as well as how many times they've been retweeted. They don't take into account the content of their posts. Often times, its not perceived influence that matters, Ramers says, but rather the quality and relevance of the connections made.

Using Customer Feedback to Improve and Engage

When it comes to social media, customer value comes from quality, not quantity. Feedback provides genuine insight that companies may otherwise never learn through other channels.

"A customer who is active on social media provides a brand with a rare opportunity for person-to-person contact," says Paige O'Neill, vice president of corporate marketing and communications at Aprimo. "These opportunities are incredibly valuable, so marketers need to seize them whenever possible. And it's not just true for customers who love your brand. Communicating with a customer who is saying negative things about you on social media can be just as important as connecting with a big fan, if not more so."

By listening to customer complaints, brands have the opportunity to fix problems they may not have been aware of, win back customers by making up for their mistakes, and proactively prevent the same issues from arising for other customers. Vocal social customers also have the opportunity to come to a brand's aid when someone else voices questions or complaints, highlights O'Neill, as their positive sentiment and passionate knowledge about the brand will seem all the more genuine and sincere.

For Ben Mekpongsatorn, co-owner of Noodle Star, social feedback has only proven to be a gateway for improving the business and engaging customers. The Sherman Oaks, CA-based restaurant, which serves a variety of Asian noodles, embraced social from its start in 2011. Though only a little over a year old, Noodle Star uses its menu and its website to encourage Facebook and Instagram users to take pictures of their food and post their images along with the hashtags listed on its menu. These activities created an initial awareness, ultimately leading to concrete feedback—positive and negative—Mekpongsatorn can use to improve his business.

"Companies that want to embrace social have to keep an open mind," says Mekpongsatorn. "For many, when they see bad reviews, they'll just ignore them and brush them off. But if you can use those negative reviews, and show customers that you care, they'll recognize that everyone makes mistakes and give you another try, often becoming your biggest fans in the end."

Finding Your Footing in the Social Sphere

If companies hope to derive value from social customers, they must be willing to give in order to receive. Companies must test different approaches, trying and measuring along the way in order to determine their effectiveness. Because social continues to evolve so rapidly, now's the time to make mistakes and learn what works for the company, as each industry's audience differs. Start slow, try, understand, and adjust, while listening to what customers are saying along the way.

"It all comes down to letting the customers know that you're listening," Biddar says. "Don't make it robotic. Collecting social data can be the most important goal for larger companies. They don't want to learn how to communicate via social networks—they want to harvest email addresses."

As Enterasys' Afshar recommends, "Listen loudly, engage kindly, and add value enthusiastically." It is critical for companies to listen first and sell second when it comes to solving problems.

Because the socially active differ from the rest of a company's customer base, they are bound to engage with friends and talk about experiences more readily, says Steve Klein, technical product manager at Parature. Companies need to listen to these customers, determine which channels they use most often, and integrate tools that will allow them to listen in a unified manner that promotes a consistent experience across channels. While it may take time to grow an effective strategy, companies that take things slow and steady will inevitably win the race for engagement.