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The power of touch: How we misunderstand social media engagement

6 min read

Brands & Campaigns

Strom Thurmond was my wingman in college.

Not literally, of course. I only met him once, for about a minute in the spring of 2000. But I got a story out of that meeting that I would later tell to almost every girl I ever tried to impress. Part of that stems from the fact that I went to a university where people talk about politics all the time, but mostly it’s just a really funny story.

But I can’t tell it to you. It’s totally apolitical and G-rated. I now tell it in lots of non-date scenarios, including once in a successful job interview, but it would flop on a blog because to tell it right, I have to be able to touch your elbow at one point. The story falls apart without that gesture.

And that’s why I told it over and over again. Touching someone, even briefly, creates a bond. You’re creating a literal symbol of the personal connection you now share. It is powerful voodoo.

The holy grail of social media marketing is an act that replicates the psychological effects of a great handshake: familiarity, engagement and trust.

We’re not there yet. I don’t know if we ever will be. But it’s a worthy goal, because as ever more business is done online, we need to get better at circumventing the emotional distance that the Web creates. Here are six ways you can bridge that divide:

  1. Prove it. Broadcasting links to and posing questions to your followers is fine. But those things are just discussion fodder, and a discussion isn’t the same thing as a connection. A charismatic person can make you feel like you are the only other person in the world, not by asking you a question or telling you an interesting fact, but by showing a singular interest in you. The followup is everything. And that’s where a lot of community engagement falls apart. It’s not enough to listen or say you care. You have to find a way to prove it. Do something with what’s been said to you. When you show people you can really listen to them, they’re more likely to talk with you again in the future.
  2. Be specific. The conventional wisdom is that you need to be authentic to promote engagement. I think that’s missing the point — and it leads to all manner of badly executed “quirky” branding efforts. When people ignore branded communications, it’s not because of their formal tone. The reason press releases, blog posts and other branded media fall flat is because they’re full of vague, general statements aimed at a vaguely defined general audience. You have get specific in your language for people to feel like you’re actually speaking to them, not the crowd they’re standing in.
    If a customer makes a suggestion, don’t say the company will take it under advisement. Say you’ll talk to Jane in sales about it and you’ll let the customer know. Both answers amount to the same thing, but the second one is specific and it leaves you accountable for following up. That creates a connection with the customer — provided you actually do what you say you will.
  3. Give of yourself. When you touch a person in real life, you’re saying you don’t think there should be barriers between you. One way you can replicate that effect online is by ignoring the information wall that companies keep building between themselves and their customers. Leak the occasional detail about a new product in a response to a follower. Send someone a picture of their order coming together. Talk shop with anyone who’s curious about how you do what you do. Customers are bombarded by ads all day, and it makes them defensive. If you want them to let you in, you might have to make the first move.
  4. Change the venue. One way you can demonstrate your interest is by taking the conversation to another platform. If someone you’re not following mentions you on Twitter, follow them after you respond. If you’re already following each other, try moving the conversation to direct messages. Depending on how things are going, you might want to follow them on other social platforms. Facebook is seen as more personal than Twitter, which is more personal than LinkedIn. If you have a good budding relationship with someone on one network, moving up a level is a good way to strengthen it.
  5. Put it in writing. If you’ve got a blog, linking to a post or a comment someone made lets them know you’re paying attention and, more importantly, taking what they say into account. Or you can try posting video responses on YouTube. Making responses a central part of your social media presence is one of the most powerful ways you can prove your engagement. I know that sounds inefficient — what if you’re an enormous company with 10 million fans? Are you supposed to respond to everyone? No.
    The funny thing about engagement is it becomes more powerful when you’re already a big deal. When a person expects to be ignored and gets a response instead, they go nuts and tell everyone. The Old Spice Guy campaign wasn’t just successful because Isaiah Mustafa was funny — it was because people were blown away by getting a response from someone they never expected to hear from.
  6. Get the conversation offline. This can be especially useful if you’re trying to engage someone who enters the conversation with a chip on their shoulder. If the customer is upset, let them call you or set up a video chat. If a sales prospect is skeptical, maybe you need to meet them in person to seal the deal. Don’t let the the lure of social media keep you from making a human connection when you need to. Making the effort to let a person hear your voice can mean more than any of the words that will come out of your mouth.

What are you doing to touch your followers?

Image credit: blueenayim, via iStockPhoto