The following is a guest post by Patrick Cole. Patrick Cole is an entrepreneur and freelancer. He is also a contributing blogger for several websites. Patrick loves self-education and rock music. Connect with Patrick via Facebook, Google+ and Twitter
Most companies feel like cash machines set in concrete walls. You put in your details and the machine spews out your product. And that’s all she wrote. Sure, they might make the machines prettier. They might put up a nice logo, put some nice paint on the wall and perhaps hang up a picture, but that doesn’t change what the nature of the interface – namely a wall between them and us.
Some companies, however, are different. They create a social media web, a conversation, with the people beyond their gates. They don’t even seem to have gates. Instead, they feel like part of the community. And you can be like that too. Admittedly, to be viewed in this way takes a lot of work, but those companies that manage to pull it off correctly aren’t just going to generate a lot of leads, they’ll be in a position to weather all storms, come what may, as their fans loyally stick out the bad time and become even more attached because of them.
And that has to count for something.
So how do they do it?
Conversation is a two-way street
The first thing they realize is that social media is not your soap box. People don’t go on there to be preached at. They go on there to engage, to share, to talk and to listen. Companies need to be the same if they want the audience to engage. In fact, they shouldn’t even be using the word ‘audience’ as that suggests something passive. Try something more active like ‘participants’.
What’s more, they should realize that every conversation on social media isn’t just with the person that you’re talking to, but everybody else who reads the post as well. Most social media users remain passive. They watch, read and make up their own mind without every touching the keys.
In other words, the only way you can influence what they’re thinking is through your main messaging and to how you deal with more active social media users. What that means is that even if a person is being utterly unreasonable, you can’t blow a gasket, as that will take away the moral high ground.
Instead, you’ve got to show that you care and have empathy, even if it appears the other side of the conversation doesn’t. After all, on social media, there isn’t just you and them. There is everybody else as well.
Visitors and advocates
Passive visitors are nice, but they aren’t near to as nice as brand advocates. After all, passive visitors might push up your visiting numbers each time the visit, but advocates do so each time they talk about your brand on some other site. You could say passive visitors are adders, while advocates are multipliers.
And if you’re trying to build up a social network, your focus should be exclusively on the latter. Get enough advocates and the visitors will follow, guaranteed.
Sound like a person and treat your audience as people
Too many companies try to sound like what they are. They try to sound like people wearing suits. That’s great if you’re a lawyer, but it isn’t quite as useful if you’re trying to create your own social network. In that case, you can’t just go around sounding stuffy and aloof. In that case, if you want to create quality content you have to make certain that you sound like a human being.
And that means not talking down to people. Instead, people want to be seen as equals, whose opinions are just as relevant (if not more so) than your own. You must be confident in what you are saying but hear opinions of your potential customers.
Internalize the conversation
Another important step is to lower the threshold for participation. There are many ways to do this, but the easiest by far is to allow people to share, like and comment wherever they are and on whatever aspect of your site they want to. That way, if they feel they need to express something they’ll express it, instead of spending the next ten seconds trying to find out where they can express it and then abandoning the attempt.
Even better, create places for your fans to discuss things internally, be in on message boards or chat channels. The advantage to this is twofold. First of all, to your users it really feels like their own private community. Secondly, you can point to this to social proof your website, which in turn will make people like your website more.
It’s such a small thing, and yet it can make such a big difference. Show the people that take part in the conversation that you appreciate them doing so. This goes beyond just responding to their posts; it’s also about advertising those people who post the most or are the most helpful, be it on your home page or some other dedicated page.
Doing this will give them an added incentive to participate and thereby grow the conversation. And that, in turn, which starts the snowball of your own social media web rolling, as the more people talk, the more there is there for other people to respond to.
Bring them to the foreground
Even more importantly, their conversation can’t just be natter in the background or a sideshow. It has to be part of your company. With that, I mean that it has to affect what’s going on, be integrated into your company’s brand and be regularly promoted.
Obviously, that doesn’t have to happen with all of the content they create, but it does have to happen with the good ideas, the good posts, and the good contributions.
If your users see that what they have to say is actually being internalized, then they will feel like they’re not just shouting down the well and that is a very important step in creating a conversation that will keep them coming back for more.
The final point to be aware of is that people don’t just share what you’re doing because they want to inform others, or share information. They also share what you’re doing because they want it to reflect well on who they are. People use what they share to showcase their ideas and beliefs.
Therefore, if you want people to advocate your brand and include you in their conversation, you’ve got to make certain that they want to be identified with your brand. Otherwise, they will never respond to your overtures to start a conversation – at least not as themselves.
Think of it like high school. If you position your brand correctly, then you’ll be like the popular kids, and everybody wants to be associated with them, even if they’re not really being listened to. Position your brand incorrectly for your audience, however, and then you’ll be like the unpopular kids. And however well you listen then, it won’t matter because at best you’ll get ignored and at worst you’ll get picked on by the social media bully.