Thoughts on Building up online engagement/interactions

It’s a wet Sunday and I was hoping to blog a gig review from a show last week, but with the issues of worldwide travel after the volcano the gig I was wanted to see has been postponed till November.   Instead I’ve typed up some thoughts on increasing online engagement -how you engage with your audience online.  You will probably have lots more ideas than I’ve listed below so please do comment.

A question that everyone probably faces at some point, how to engage and interact more with customers online and when it comes to a methods to allow this should a custom niche network/tool be developed or should you embrace and use the ones already out there.  The answer is likely to involve a bit of both – definitely use the existing networks but if you can do something better and there is a good reason to do so then maybe your own network will have a place.

In this post I’m thinking of all locations where an online engagement may be made, so that could be on traditional social networks like Facebook & linkedin, Video sharing sites such as Youtube, photo sharing sites like Flickr, Status sharing sites like Twitter and bookmark sharing services such as Digg, the list could go on.

To give this a bit of structure I’ve divided it up into six considerations, the order isn’t strictly relevent but I hope the below provides some ideas on how to build up online engagement with current and new customers, I don’t believe it to be the whole story but hopefully food for thought.

Consideration One: Identify (or revisit) the aims of what you want to do

Knowing what you are trying to achieve is key, what do you hope increased interactions will bring – Say you were a record label music publisher for a niche music style your aims may be –

  • Sell more CDS
  • Sell more merch
  • Get more gigs for the bands, increase audience attendance at gigs
  • Get Radio airplay for the bands on the label
  • Source opinion on new acts
  • Get Support gigs with bigger acts
  • Find more listeners
  • Have your music played on television or film soundtrack
  • Get a promoter to show interest

Consideration Two:  Where is the (potential) community

Knowing here your community may be is key to engaging with them.  Here are five places that your potential community will probably be lurking.

2.1        The community already finding your content

Wherever you currently interact with people on the web is already a community – be it on your main website, your store, you myspace page, or even a youtube video that you have uploaded there is a community of people that have visited that page – they all have something in common in that they are interested in the content on that page.

The community for each piece of content isn’t necessarily a community that want to become friends, or care who each other are, but they may well be interested in what other members of that community think and do with the content on the page.  They may be interested in comments, what other people on that page did next, how people rate the content on the page, what other people on the page did next, or purchased.  They also may want to know more about other people who have found that page – if your lucky they may even self identify themselves and form a group around the content.

2.2        The community who share the interests of those who have found your content

As well as the community who have found a piece of content there is also the potential community of people who haven’t found your content but know someone who has.  If person A finds your content they may have linked through facebook to person B, they can therefore post the content to facebook, possibly comment on it and promote it to their community.

2.3        The community who have commented about you but haven’t necessarily come to your content

There is also a potential community that may have put a message on twitter or their blog about one of your initiatives, one of your bands etc but haven’t visited your site.  Searching the web on a regular basis to find such content will be time consuming, but there are excellent “buzz” monitoring tools out there such as addictomatic – http://addictomatic.com where you can search peoples blogs, twitter posts, youtube, flickr and many other sites.

2.4               The community that aren’t yet aware of you

This is where it’s down for you to go out and actively find an interact with your potential community, you can’t expect to just build the site and they will come.  You can get your community to help you here – as in step 2.2, but it’s also down to you.  Join in conversation on the web (the well used phrase “being of the web rather than on the web” comes into play here) you don’t need to go adding everyone as a friend but get your content out across the web so that it is discoverable.  The phrase was “search engine optimisation” this may well soon become “social search optimisation”.

2.5               The community that interact with you as an organisation but not online.

This community will be divided into two groups – those who are online and those who aren’t online, for the former there is potential that they don’t know of your online offering – they might be active bloggers or facebook users without actually knowing of your online presence.

Consideration Three:  Identify where can the interaction be made

Decide where you will interact with your customers, will it be on your web presence or by going out to where they are.  This section looks a it bloated as I go off topic slightly to think about the creation of niche social networks vs using mainstream ones for the interaction.

Going back to the aims you need to look at the places where your potential community might be and think of ways in which to allow people to identify themselves and be part of your community.  What content have you got on the web which is attracting the people who you wish to interact more with, where else on the web are these people already interacting.

If your aim is to find more listeners for bands that you are promoting then you are unlikely to achieve that by advertising on your own niche network for listeners that have already identified themselves to you.  Yet if you are looking for street teams to help promote bands a niche network could be an ideal location.  If you wish to talk to the public at large without people identifying themselves by joining a niche network or mainstream network group then maybe Twitter is going to be a better solution.

The length of time the interaction is likely to be key to deciding how to interact with people – if it’s for a short term campaign then it may not be worth the investment to develop something custom, and the established tools online may offer more than you need.

3.1            Connecting and Interacting

The choice between what to do on a niche network and what to do on social networks needs to be made on where they most meet your needs and where the interaction can best be made.

Data on mainstream social networks is likely to be owned by the network provider – you also may have no control over potential interruptions to service and the termination of service all together.  So you could build up an archive of content that is later lost if there is no way to export it.  But – for conversation hosting and engagement does this matter, conversations happen in the real world via conversations, meeting in the flesh, skype etc aren’t necessarily recorded.

It’s likely that the interaction with you is only a small part of the story – the interaction between customers is what will drive your brand forward.  Consider the lists of amazon for example, recommended lists that customers have put together for other customers.  If you can generate the spark to get that fire going and customers are creating content of value for other customers then you are likely to be on to a winner.

3.2            Utilising Mainstream networks or niche networks and tools.

Some of the biggest successes in social networks are because they do one thing fantastically well – flickr with photo sharing, twitter with status updates, youtube with video sharing.  You’re likely to be more successful if you don’t try and replace the large networks with what they are already doing best, instead embrace their success and if you do something differently or better then a niche network should be considered.  And before you decide that niche is definitely the way to go view the market and see if a niche network already exists out there.

Niche Network Advantages

Starting with the niche networks here are some thoughts on why the user may prefer the niche network, and then why the organisation may prefer to work in a niche network.  This for all of these lists I’m sure you will have more ideas than I’ve thought of here so please do comment.

Why might people go to a niche (vertical) network, i.e. one dedicated to a certain interest type

  • To find and interact the experts already resident
  • Not want it to be globally known, or where they want to discuss things with their friends seeing, possibly with diseases
  • If custom tools are offered – if it helps the folk meet their aims easier, faster and better than elsewhere.
  • Separate work and personnel lives, although the line between is now very grey
  • To avoid the noise and focus on what they want to do without updates from various  applications and games.
  • To work on confidential issues
  • You know members have the same interests – you don’t need to go and search for them or become their friends
  • Easier to establish a loud voice in the community – big fish in a smaller pond
  • Premium (paid for) content and services
  • More potential for a web design that echos the experience of using the network

Why organisations may prefer a niche network

  • Possible greater ability to control the data
  • Ability to offer premium/paid services
  • Possible reduced perceived risk of service termination / changes
  • Advertising potential
  • Perception of keeping information confidential to authorised people
  • Potential more flexibility for functionality and design – it may be such a custom solution that it has to be developed.

Mainstream Network/Tools Advantages

Next up – why a user may prefer to just use the mainstream networks like facebook and then why an organisation may prefer to spend time on them

Why might people use the mainstream (horizontal) networks  (networks like facebook that cater for all)

  • All areas of interest (professional and pleasure) can be done within one network
  • Their friends from the real world are likely to be there
  • Communication tool, substitute for email
  • Potentially better keeping up to date with technology advances and integration with other services and social media dashboards.
  • Not have to maintain many logins, going through the barrier of setting up a new account, another set of t&cs
  • Not having to learn different user interfaces
  • Not having to keep multiple networks up to date (although dashboards will reduce this)

Why organisations may prefer using the larger networks

  • Have regular attendance – facebook is still the most used network (Mashable – http://mashable.com/2010/03/19/global-social-media-usage/) so people are there, they may well have an account on a niche network but the majority of their time is likely to be on horizontal networks.
  • Have larger potential customer base and ability to reach the customers that haven’t found you yet.
  • Set up cost is usually only someone’s time time
  • Service availability and reliability is someone elses problem
  • Ability to use the large range of free plugins & tools and integration possibilities.  Social Media dashboards likely to be more compatible.
  • If an organisation doesn’t tap the potential customer base in a large social network then someone else will
  • Discoverability
  • Fast ability to engage with a large audience.  You can announce a hashtag code for twitter an instantly have a conversation with an audience at an event – people are already on these social networks, there is almost no barrier to the interaction.
  • Ideal for shorter campaigns where the overhead of doing something separate isn’t worth it.
  • If you have a niche network no matter how good it is some folk will probably rather enagage with you on the mainstream tools.

What you want from the engagement will have a lot to do with your aims set out from the start and where the community you wish to target lurk.  This can then be used with what is offered via different types of networking systems to help you work out the best technical solution.

If it’s to just source opinion and have a conversation with your customers then something as simple as a Twitter may meet a lot of your needs.

Twitter changed the way that interactions can be made with status sharing .  Most people are used to facebook status updates, you are my friend so you receive my updates because you have chosen to be my friend.  I also receive your updates but do I want to receive your updates?  Twitter however introduced following rather than friends, I can follow your “tweets” because I’m interested in them, but that doesn’t mean that you’re interested in my tweets.  I can reply to a tweet from you and you’ll see that, but you won’t see all my random tweets about the latest band I’ve discovered.  I can also listen to the conversation worldwide without actively identifying myself as someone who wants to follow tweets – via a hash tag all users of twitter can follow a conversation.  If you’d like to know more about hash tags here is a short vid I found on youtube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAHitI26MmE

Social Media dashboards are likely to make this easier in the future.

If mainstream social networks are the way you’d like to increase the interaction then consider which networks your customers are most likely to be active on already – linked-in, facebook, myspace and bebo could attract different people, although some keen folk will have accounts on all.  Also consider the location of the audience – in different countries different networks are popular, in the UK, US and Australia there are the clear main ones but if you go to say China it’s quite different.  There is a great post on that here – http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/post_2.php

If a niche network is required then it doesn’t have to be a large outlay – SocialGo and Ning are two options that offer you the ability to build a social network for free or a very small outlay.

A Youtube channel, flickr group, wordpress blog, Augmented reality phone app, there are lots of other types of tools for the interaction out there.

Consideration Four: Consider the practicalities/legal side of doing all this

Considerations before you start about how you will do certain things.

4.1 Embedding components to enable interaction

If your community is already coming to your web content how can you add community action to those pages or draw them into your community, can you add widgets from the social sites, abilities to share your content on facebook,  twitter or social bookmarking services.  How can you add community to your web content in a way that is beyond a static advert so that it shows interactions are happening?  It’s possible that all you need to do is a bit of cut and paste work with code provided by mainstream social networks and tools.

4.2  Being able to cope with the extra work

Managing a web presence across multiple networks could result in a lot of work yet at the same time if you neglect one and don’t keep it up to date it will reduce it’s worth in the eyes of those who use.  Where possible look to an automatic way of updating say Twitter and then have the update automatically feed a facebook page.  If information can be exported into RSS then that’s a good start – RSS is a great glue that can stick a lot of the social web together and enable networks to send information to each other.

Look at social media dashboards like hootsuite – http://hootsuite.com/dashboard where you can control multiple social networks via one interface, enabling you to spend more time responding, interacting and less time lost in the distractions that social networks present.   There is a great video on hootsuite here – You can even do it all from your iPhone –

4.3  Consider the Risks

You also don’t want to end up in trouble if you have enabled people to distribute illegal or inappropriate material so consider the legal side.   This isn’t something I can say much about but there is a large white paper from Reed Smith available here http://www.adlawbyrequest.com/uploads/file/Social%20Media%20White%20Paper%20Ed_1.pdf that is worth a look.  Consider how you will know if someone was to post something bad, how will you be notified or will people be-able to report it to you.

Consideration Five: Actually getting the interaction running

This blog post will get very bloated if I gave thoughts on this, and there are a million blogs out there than cover this better – but here are some ideas on how to get the interaction running.  You may have put in place the cogs but you need to get them to spin next.

Seed: Get the content rolling – don’t assume that if you provide the tool people will come, people will only come if it’s useful

Inspire: Providing content that people will want to respond to

Reward: customers for their interaction.  Just the buzz of having a famous musician or festival retweet your tweet can be tremendously rewarding – or at least it has for me.  If you can community to run the engagement for you then even better!

Personalise: Don’t be too corporate, social networks are social, people expect your view not always that of an organisation.

Respond: Let contributors of the network know that you are listening – don’t just use it as a broadcast forum, actively read posts and respond.

If it’s a social network solution that you have implemented then this is where you can hope that your customers take on a lot of this for you.

Consideration Six:            Measure it and review

You need to know how you will be measuring the success of your interactions and whether what you are doing is working.

The number of say friends you have probably isn’t as meaningful as what using social media has actually changed for the business.  The interaction & engagement is probably what will make a difference, someone may have joined a group or added you as a friend on a social network they used briefly, but the person who has responded to a twitter post or commented on a youtube video may be a stronger networking and interaction opportunity.

If your aim is making money I’m guessing it’s unlikely that you will monetize the social network itself, and money would just be made in the way you’ve always made it.  So some ideas of how you could measure success

  • Increased number of sales
  • More airplay
  • Reduced money needed for advertising budgets
  • Increased usage of main website
  • Length of time spent on sites (although this can provide mis-information)
  • Number of responses to questions
  • Number of visitors

You may well find results that you weren’t expecting when you initially set out your aims – the good thing with social media is that I don’t think it has to involve costly investments, therefore with little investment done up front if you don’t make a large return on that investment you won’t have lost out.

You also have to review everything you’re doing on a regular basis or you’ll be left behind, as in a few months there will be new tools out there that people will be using.

That’s it, there may be some major areas of consideration I have missed but the sun has started to shine outside now so I’m off to do some gardening.  Please do comment if you have any thoughts on these thoughts.

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