For any early-stage business, building an online following is a relatively inexpensive yet powerful way to grow – but getting it right is a different matter.

In this the third of our four-part series on social media pointers for small businesses, we explore the dos and don’ts when it comes to engaging your social media fans and followers.

Community engagement

You’ve probably heard of community management – that is, the practice of creating and publishing content for a business’s social media page, as well as replying to any followers, their queries, or more likely, their complaints. However, there’s been a recent shift away from the term ‘community management’ in favour for ‘community engagement’.

The difference may seem subtle, but it isn’t. Community engagement suggests a more proactive model of building your following online and talking to your business’s followers, as opposed to reactively ‘managing’ their complaints. It’s a change in perspective that helps your business be more front-footed in asking your community questions through content, involving fans in the creation of content, or the next steps of where the business is headed, and pre-empting feedback ahead of time and preparing resources for that.

In the long run this presents a more sustainable way of building a community online, and puts the control of your brand in your hands – rather than in the hands of social media trolls.

Finding your brand’s voice

All too often businesses on social media fall into the cheesy customer service trap when talking or replying to their followers – a trap laden with ‘sirs’ and ‘madams’, vague reminders that ‘we appreciate your feedback’, and repetitive ‘apologies for any inconvenience’.

Don’t get us wrong – it pays to be polite. But defaulting to a generic tone of voice on social media can make you and your brand seem cold, impersonal, and inauthentic – and therefore easier to get angry at online.

Instead, take the opportunity to show off your brand’s personality – its point of view, its sense of humour, its spunk or humanity. Customers are customers, but on social media, they’re in a more casual state of mind – and that’s a great opportunity to connect in a more authentic way. Fast food chains are notoriously good at doing this – browse the Facebook pages of the big names in fast food and you’ll see what we’re talking about.

Take this advice with a grain of salt however – it all depends on your audience. A B2B company may need to communicate a tad more professionally with its consumers on social media, but even then some personality can come through.

Backpedalling leads to backlash

If one of your followers is publically complaining on your business’s social media channels, there’s a natural temptation to hide or delete their feedback as it looks bad to new visitors.

Don’t – 100% of the time a brand deletes any of their customer’s comments it results in more negative comments, reposts, and is never a good look for a brand. Instead the best policy is to politely address feedback either publically, or if it’s going on and on, in a private message.

Chatbots aren’t for chatting

Chatbots are gaining traction on social media as a useful tool to handle the customer service aspect that inevitably comes when accruing a following for a business – but despite the name, chatbots should not be conversation.

Rather, treat chatbots as automated services which provide your customers with quick and relevant information and your fans will thank you for it.

Involve your following

It’s not all business however – social media is unique in that it affords you the ability to truly engage with your customers on a human level. See your following as a resource rather than a burden, a pool which to collect feedback from or involve in the development of your business (for example, in a new product or rebrand), feature user-generated content from, recruit talent from for market research or the creation of content, and even entertainment.

So many brands have been rewarded by jumping on a funny, bizarre, or otherwise highly-visible comment left by one of their followers in an unexpected and off-beat way – do the same for your following, and you’ll be leading.