Online engagement for business

26 Jun 2009

By participating in online social networks, businesses can benefit from the power of public engagement as never before.

The pace of growth of social networking is staggering. As of today there are over 700,000 people using Facebook in Ireland, Twitter’s membership is growing by over 1,382pc per year and Ireland’s popular discussion forum now has over two million monthly visits.

To survive and thrive in today’s highly competitive business world, companies need to be visible where their customers are communicating. As media evolve and internet usage continues to soar, it is now very clear where that place is.

From improving customer relationships to simply generating awareness of your products and services, social networking offers a wealth of opportunities for businesses. While most recognise the need to become involved, many still don’t know where to start and how to engage.

A company wishing to participate in this brave new world must be considered in its approach. A social-networking plan should be developed based on its business strategy and objectives. Rather than jumping in feet first, an organisation should establish what it wishes to achieve through online interaction, the most appropriate networks to do this and how success will be measured. 

Initiating a presence on some of the more popular social-networking websites can be as simple as registering, but how you communicate with an online community is not so straightforward. Like visiting a foreign country for the first time, the tentative social networker needs to learn the cultural norms of a particular social networking service. 

They should consider how the users interact with each other, the language they use, the topics they discuss and what values they hold. The best way to start is to become a member so that you can quickly develop an understanding of what it is an audience might want from a business presence and, crucially, what they would find objectionable.

Some businesses treat their Twitter or Facebook presence as another advertising medium, resulting in their profile and updates being ignored, like an intrusive and pushy gatecrasher. Using social networking in this way can not only do irreparable damage to a brand but amounts to a wasted opportunity to foster meaningful relationships with key stakeholders, including customers, employees, partners, suppliers and shareholders.

To earn credibility in the online space, a business has to offer something valuable to encourage the community to listen. This can take the form of offering customers assistance, providing exclusive, advance information on a product not yet launched or expert knowledge of a particular issue. Listening and responding to questions and feedback further encourages engagement and a relationship with that company.

Many fear they are potentially risking their reputation from operating in this open manner. People may recount negative experiences with the company and even talk up competitor offerings. One way or another, any business operating in public can be subjected to criticism and it has not always been possible to directly engage with negative word-of-mouth.

However, by establishing a presence in a stakeholder’s own online community, an organisation can join the conversation about itself. In this way it can monitor and respond to criticisms and queries publicly – comments that would previously have gone unheard and unanswered.

If handled appropriately, unfavourable feedback can be quickly converted into a positive experience. These online interactions will be visible on search engines for years to come, as will your customers positive reports of your efforts.

Top tips for online engagement

  • Have a plan, setting timed goals and reviewing progress regularly
  • Research where your customers are spending their time online. Specific social networks only suit specific target audiences and goals
  • Become an online citizen by joining with the communities you wish to engage with
  • Watch and learn before you engage
  • Offer something of value
  • Be open and truthful. All lies die on the internet as facts can be referenced in seconds while reputations can be destroyed as quickly
  • Be patient. Much like the ‘real’ world, building up credibility takes time
  • Ignorance is not bliss. Neglecting these online communities is a missed opportunity and a potential risk to your reputation. 

Bernice Burnside is director and owner of Bvisible Communications,