As I travel around the country attending conferences and speaking at events, one thing stands out to me in relation to brand engagement—particularly in social media circles—it needs to be more personal. What do I mean by that? Well, for one thing, it takes more than likes and clicks to develop relationships.

People respond to people best in one-on-one, face-to-face situations—that’s just the way we are. So when you try to automate that process and remove the personal connection, immediately there’s a wall between you and your audience.

People gravitate toward social communities to talk to each other, find out what’s going on, ask for recommendations for things or services we need or want, etc. So social engagement isn’t just about posting stuff; it’s about communicating with real people.

Now, besides the daily back-and-forth chatter, people use the web and social channels to find information. But not just any information—when they’re looking for a product or service they would rather hear a story from another person’s experience. Forget pitching, forget ads. How do you get real people to tell real stories about their great experience with your brand? That’s where community building comes in.

Let me give you an example. At Collective Bias, we’re all about brands and retailer in-channel, and how people make their purchases. We connect shoppers with the brands and the retailers that they use in their daily lives to drive conversation on a wide variety of social media platforms.

We do it through a blogging community called Social Fabric, which weaves organic social content into engaging, real-life stories that get shared not only in that community but exponentially across lots of platforms and communities. In the end, these stories create millions of impressions that lead to increased share of voice. That means that when people type in a search about those products, they don’t just get ingredients or corporate logos, they get connected to a story from someone who actually uses that product. Social stories are very powerful—really more powerful than any other type of media today when it comes to increasing sales for brands and retailers. In fact, according to a recent IBM study, social voice increases marketing effectiveness by up to 54%, and a 10% lift in social voice can result in a sales lift of up to 1.5%.

ROR driving image IBM Summit

The secret sauce here is providing good content because content creates a platform for people and brands to communicate, not just about products and services, but about what is important to consumers. If your content is on target, it will be spread freely via social platforms. A blog post is just the beginning of the journey. People influenced by the blog share what they’ve read wherever they communicate; and because this content is evergreen, it will live on for a long time (unlike a one-and-done advertisement). It is an incredibly potent form of word-of-mouth marketing as long as you make your audience’s needs, desires and interests the focus. Take them on the journey of transformation with your content because content drives engagement, engagement drives advocacy, and advocacy correlates directly to increased sales.

How do we find out what’s important to our audiences? Ask them! Have social conversations, pick up the telephone and talk to your best customers. Engage them in conversation. Ask them what’s keeping them up at night—what they’re passionate about, or how you could improve your product. Social is great for asking those kinds of questions so you understand where your audience is coming from rather than simply trying to sell them something. And most important… LISTEN. There is conversation happening on social platforms every day so start paying attention.

However, lots of brands still don’t get it. They think of social as just another media channel and throw away opportunities to use it to really connect with their audiences. In fact, I’ll be speaking later this year at the IBM Smarter Commerce Global Business Summit in Nashville on the worst mistakes brands make in social and how to avoid them. One of the biggest mistakes is not taking advantage of the word-of-mouth opportunity that social provides. I would like to see more brands participate in communities that actively encourage this.

For instance, at an event called “Hispanicize” in Miami I spent time with an incredibly passionate Latino community. They are true connectors and put an incredible amount of value on the recommendation, shared passions, and what their friends and relatives are using, buying and participating in. In fact, Hispanics engage in 53% more word-of-mouth than the general public. Spanish speaking word-of-mouth is highly actionable. It is likely to contain a buy/try recommendation, be passed along, and lead to purchase.

Are there lessons here that brands should be picking up on? Absolutely! One of the biggest ones is learning to adapt your communication to better engage with your target audience. Don’t just talk at them; listen to what they’re saying! Ask questions. Empower your employees to be responsive on social channels so they can help you get closer to your customers. Above all, find ways to make social engagement more personal.

I’m hoping that people are going to start recognizing that a click of a button doesn’t mean making a friend. Brands need to start valuing relationships a lot more and recognizing that they need to communicate. They need to meet people. They need to actually be social, even if that’s online. That means thinking in terms of ROR (Return on Relationship) rather than ROI.

Originally published at B&T Magazine

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