As long as brands have existed, consumers have loved to talk about them. While 90% of conversations about brands are happening offline, today millions of people talk about companies on social media, and these online conversations now offer a new dimension in marketing.
Whether consumers are aware of it or not, these branded conversations are increasingly being watched by businesses.
Being faced with so many conversations happening in real time can be a daunting prospect, particularly for small businesses, but ignoring them can be a huge missed opportunity to influence how the world sees your brand.
So how can companies not only get people talking online, but also manage conversations through to a successful conclusion?
Key points on managing online conversations
Firstly, modern consumers like to express themselves, and they love to talk about the brands and companies they encounter day-to-day.
It is important to see customers’ input as positive. If they have gone to the effort to speak out it is because they want to give feedback on their brand experience to make a contribution towards successful products and good service.
Above all, consumers want to be listened to so you may find that the intensity of online conversations is high and people are not afraid to make their expectations clear.
Brands and customers can start a conversation
Remember that both brands and consumers are capable of starting a conversation. Online discussion forums, after-dinner chats between friends, telephone calls or complaint e-mails are all forms of conversation about brands initiated by consumers.
However, brands can also start the conversation, and it is often done successfully by sharing good content that will provide inspiration. Initiate discussions but be balanced and open enough to allow consumers to start discussions of their own – if you find that it is always the consumers who are taking the initiative, you are under-using your conversation management skills.
Finally, it is vital to understand what we mean by ‘a conversation’. Remember, a conversation is an interaction which involves both talking and listening, and everyone should have the same opportunity to express an opinion. For traditional advertisers especially, listening is something new, so successful ‘Conversation Management’ requires an open mind.
Three steps to a well-managed online conversation
If your business is going to successfully initiate conversations and keep them flowing, you must firstly observe the conversation as a manager, then facilitate the conversation as a brand before joining the conversation as a peer.
Observing conversations gives you valuable insights into your customers. Free tools like Tweetdeck, Google Trends and Google Alerts can help you to observe what conversations are happening where, and if you are working with a slightly bigger budget, there are lots of software options available to help you to monitor activity in a more automated way.
The key objective of the observational process is to get a better understanding of your customers, which will allow you to make sure that the products and services you offer meet their needs.
Research has shown that more than 50% of the online conversations are about offline experiences, so rather than seeing the worlds of online and offline as separate, observing online conversations can help the crucial process of improving your offline offering.
Customers discuss the quality of products and services remarkably openly with their friends and even complete strangers – if feedback is good then there is a great basis for online success, but if it is frequently bad, you have an opportunity to address the issues.
Facilitating an online conversation is all about making it easy for customers to talk both with you and about you. If you are successfully making this easy it shows you have both the right mix of social media channels to reach out to customers, and content that is worth talking about.
There are lots of little things you can do to make a big improvement in how you facilitate conversations. Raising awareness of your social media presence is an easy but effective step, by simply showing your social media profiles in email signatures, offline materials or anywhere they might be seen by a new audience, and make sure profiles look professional and up-to-date to reflect well on your brand when new users find them.
Also use share buttons when you create content for your website, and remember that spending a little extra time to get your content looking great will make it much more shareable.
Listening is a great first step, but you will often find customers that need a reply. Getting the tone of voice for right for this is important, so use language that the customer will understand and identify with, and under no circumstances make the consumer feel that they are being talked down to by a big, impersonal company.
People like dealing with people, especially someone who is prepared to listen, give meaningful answers to questions, ask questions in return and generally understand how they feel.
The language used in these conversations is different to any other type of communication used in the business world, and can afford to be much more human and less official than the sharp, crafted texts that are produced for websites, brochures and press releases.
If you encounter conversation online that is critical of your company it can be instinctive to counter-attack, but remember that this only leads to frustration for everyone and does not solve the problem. By asking questions and opening up the conversation, the customer will feel that you are showing genuine interest.
Questions like: “Can you give me an example of that?” often make their second question more neutral, or may even be less negative after some more explanation by the customer, and remember that the restricted character count can make complaints via Twitter sound more severe than they actually are.
Honesty is always the best policy
As a final note on getting customers talking online, honesty is always the best policy. When conversations between companies and customers fail to reach a successful conclusion, this is usually because the company concealed the whole truth or simply promised more than it delivered, and customers can spot a lie in seconds. If there is a problem with your products, admit it to the customer quickly and clearly.
Remember that the worlds of online and offline are not separate, and just because a conversation starts online it doesn’t mean you can’t finish it offline, so if it is a delicate subject you’d rather not share with the world, contact your client offline to solve the issue on the phone or by email.
About the author
This article has been written for ByteStart by Prof. Steven Van Belleghem, author of The Conversation Company and The Conversation Manager (Kogan Page). Follow him on twitter @StevenVBe or visit: StevenVanBelleghem.com
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