Social media doesn’t change everything. The customer still comes first, and personal engagement still matters.

By Sachin Shenolikar

It’s not news that corporate social media has become a full-time job, one that can require an entire staff of employees. Still, many companies are unsure about how much time and money to allocate to it — especially small and medium-sized businesses that are strapped for funds.

“There’s still a big gap between the understanding of social media and the actual implementation of it,” said digital strategist Ahna Hendrix.

The customer still comes first, personal engagement still matters, and other customer service maxims that still hold true in the time of Twitter.MaleSmiling

Here are some simple tips to help craft a customer-friendly social strategy:

Engage Customers on Many Levels
Social media strategy should not be simply posting clever ads or news about your product or industry. The key is to provide a variety of content, grow relationships and build trust with customers. “Companies that achieve the most engagement in social are those that find the right balance between post types — promotional, conversational, humorous, and informative,” said Brent Purves, CEO of social media marketing agency Stir Solutions.

Add a Human Touch
For companies trying to find their comfort zone, there are some simple ways to give interactions a more human touch. By including two-letter initials for the employees on the customer care team who send tweets from a company account, a customer can tweet at a specific person instead of the entire team. Companies can also search for casual mentions of their brand — or something on a similar topic — and then reach out to individuals to start a conversation or offer low-key guidance that could be subtly related to their product. A food company could share a recipe, for example. “The brands that are doing it really effectively are the ones that not only solve problems but also respond to people on a personal level,” said marketing expert Rohit Bhargava, author of “Likeonomics.”

Keep a Sense of Humor
Of course, customers will sometimes react negatively toward a business or product — this is the Internet, after all. When that happens, it’s essential to stay poised and respond to every comment. Self-effacing humor can also help turn things around. Hendrix recalled seeing a chalkboard sign outside a shop that read: “Come in and try the worst sandwich you’ve ever had according to this guy on Yelp.” Brilliant strategy, says Hendrix: ”It’s a comical way of dealing with the fact that you’re just going to have that negativity sometimes. You can turn it around and make it a positive experience.”

Go for Quality, Not Quantity
Educating people, making them laugh and solving their problems are all great ways to grow a fan base. Yet drawing a large crowd should not be the main goal. Companies often fixate on their follower counts, even going to the extent of buying followers and “likes” to boost their numbers and show clout. Many social media strategists, including Hendrix, believe count is overrated and say it’s much more important to have a following that’s engaged. “If your audience isn’t talking about you and sharing your content and commenting, it doesn’t matter how many [followers] you have,” said Hendrix. “Social media is all about creating that ripple effect.”

The online relationship between a business and its customers can be a complicated one, but it all comes down to that old adage: The customer always comes first. “What is it going to take for you to be won over? How does a company gain your trust?” said Hendrix. “That’s what real social media and building a brand is about.”

(This article was first published on Real Business, a website from Xerox that provides ideas and information for decision makers in business and government.)

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