Originally posted on 19 Dec 2013

Mark Appel, marketing director at Exact, advises small business owners on how to cut through the marketing noise and effectively communicate with customers.  Mark says that the old maxim that the customer is king has never rung more true than it does today. Empowered, savvy consumers are taking a no-nonsense approach to the flood of unwanted, uninteresting marketing messages brands expose them to.

I’ve covered most of Mark’s post here: Accountants and Lawyers, in particular should take note. There much to be learned.

Customers don’t want to be inundated, and they don’t want to be influenced. Instead, they tightly gate-keep which brands they interact with, and how, when and what they communicate. What is more, they want companies to respond to their individual needs rather than those of some abstract market segment.

And it’s not just consumers; the same rules apply to business-to-business marketing. There is now more overlap than ever between the business and the consumer worlds as technology (think iPads) and communications (think social media) increasingly straddle the two domains. At the end of the day, we are all consumers, whether we’re at home or at our desk.

The power of the personal: In September this year, a survey of 6,000 social media users in the UK, US and Canada by Vision Critical found that 40% of respondents had purchased items online or in-store after sharing or liking them on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. The survey also showed that social media drives approximately the same amount of sales both in-store and online. According to the Internet Advertising Bureau, four out of five consumers said they would be more inclined to buy a brand, and buy it more often, if they have been exposed to that brand’s social media accounts. For every £1 invested in social media there is a potential gain to the business of £3.34, a return of well over 300%.

These statistics highlight that we have now left behind first generation internet marketing, with its uncontrollable pop-up ads and mass emails, and truly entered the era of ‘engagement marketing’.

It would be easy to disregard these trends as for big business only, but the beauty of engagement marketing is that it doesn’t necessarily require big budgets and resources and can be scaled easily to the requirements of any size of business, down to a one-man or one-woman band.

With engagement marketing, you don’t have to do everything; you can choose a few channels that suit you and your resources best. The only imperative is that you really use whatever channels you decide on to the best possible effect.

Understanding your customer:  To make best use of their chosen channels, companies need to home in on their individual customers and what drives their buying decisions. More than just being interested in a brand, product or service, consumers want to be part of a brand. They want to hold conversations and build relationships with brands that treat them as partners rather than as sales leads.

Online engagement is about creating this emotional value-add. Giving customers a fuzzy feeling does not necessarily create immediate warm sales opportunities. It is a way of opening up the channels that create, maintain and grow relationships, to keep people committed to your brand, and, ultimately, talk about it to their friends, online and in the real world.

To make such a ‘pull strategy’ work, businesses need to understand who their customers are, based on demographics; what they are looking for in terms of their general interests, product preferences and the type of content they are receptive to; and finally, how involved they are with the brand.

Doing this is no longer rocket science; there are plenty of simple, free tools to profile customers. For instance web analytics services like Google Analytics show you how visitors arrive at your website, how they navigate around it and what engrosses them most. ‘Social listening’ tools like Addictomatic identify what people are saying about you online.

On the basis of this, it should be much easier to create content that will be received as informative and interesting, rather than annoying.

Where’s the beef?: The more closely interactions with your business reflect your customers’ needs or interests, the more engaged they will be and, hopefully, convert more easily from prospects to customers. While many of your followers will stay passive, it is important to foster a sense of community amongst those who are active. We all want to be part of something, and your Facebook page could become a place where like-minded people come together online, all united by your product or service, or simply a common goal associated with your product. This could be anything from sharing recipes for your food blender to tips for removing stains.

Traditionally, customers prefer the personal attention they get from a small business over the more anonymous treatment they may often receive from its larger competitors. The same applies in the online world.

For your online and social presence, this means showing off the personalities behind your company, enabling followers to ‘meet’ you. Video can be a great way of achieving this. Similarly, your senior team or in-house experts should get involved in relevant comment threads. This will help reinforce that individual customers’ concerns are being taken seriously throughout the organisation.

Social media has made it easy for people to voice their opinions, but it should not be the only feedback channel. Encouraging customers to comment on website content, uploading reviews or participating in online forums all help stimulate engagement with your brand, adding credibility and authenticity.

While it is advisable to choose fewer rather than too many social and online channels, it is also important to note that cross-channel communication will help reach more people and reinforce your brand’s visibility.

Keep going!: Finally, just because you’ve attracted somebody to your site or page does not mean you will keep them forever. Plan ahead for your next few weeks or months of activity because retaining them is down to your flow of content and its ongoing relevance.

For more in-depth advice on how you can embrace the power of engagement marketing, click here to download a free guide.

Martin Pollins
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