One of the biggest shifts for companies in the social media age is that customers’ and prospects’ expectations have changed. Every media outlet encourages feedback over social media and every retail establishment wants you to like them on Facebook. This barrage of social media activity encourages the two-way conversations that are the hallmark for this still-new form of communication. Companies need to understand that customers are now in charge and they need to provide value to those customers.

A social media profile is an invitation to use that communication channel, and many companies are not even listening. According to a study of regular Twitter users who tweeted complaints to companies with Twitter accounts, less than one-third of companies responded.

Companies progress through a series of engagement stages with their customers and community. Let’s review them now.

Listening

It may sound obvious, but the first step to engaging is listening. If you don’t know what the conversation sounds like, it’s impossible to plan how to respond. Whether a company establishes social profiles first or starts listening first, it is important that preliminary listening occur. While a social profile is a signal for customers to tweet rather than call, companies need to understand the social landscape before jumping in. This early listening can help the development of processes required for engaging. This will also help you understand your staffing needs and tools required.

The best way to understand what to do with what you hear is to create a playbook, a guideline for your social media front line. This is especially important at the beginning, as your social media responders may just be engaging on a part-time basis. Having predetermined escalations paths and suggested responses can help simplify this process as they respond to only the highest profile comments and complaints.

Responding

This is where engagement starts getting serious. Responding to customers and prospects is the official responsibility of one or more people in the organization. For companies with a smaller volume of conversations, they may begin trying to respond to every conversation, although it is primarily reactive. For companies with a larger volume, the social media playbook is of utmost importance, because they will never be able to respond to all comments and need a way to prioritize what they respond to. In an interview with social media consultant Jay Baer, Rick Wion, Director of the Social Media for McDonald’s USA, describes how the company manages 2.5 million posts per month.

Customer service and tech support begin to get involved in engagement at this point. It’s easier to begin training your customer service reps on how to respond through social media, rather than continuing to email or sneakernet questions to the customer service team. As you expand this social function, talk to your customer service team to understand the general volume of phone and email requests, as well as the ten most common questions. This will help expand the social media playbook to include likely customer service issues and how to respond.

Participating

Companies that have built communities around their brand have done so through engagement. Some of the largest brands naturally attract customers to communicate with them on social media just by being there, but for most of us, if you build it, they do not come. This level of engagement requires dedicated community managers who nurture the community by paying attention to them. This is more than just responding to questions. The social team encourages the community to share by posing thought-provoking questions. It also means celebrating their successes, commiserating in their challenges, and becoming a valuable part of the communities they are striving to build.

A community is a group of people with similar interests, experiences and desires. It is not a group of people who like a brand. You might think of these people as a community, but unless your community managers become key members of the community, it is a loose collection of people. You may even get them to engage with your online activities, but the goal is to develop advocacy in your community. Not only will advocates recommend your brand on their own, they will defend your company when others raise questions or share negative opinions. A company gets to this place by valuing their customers and making sure the community team has the authority to truly serve the community.

Engaging and Creating

The top stage in engagement and community is indicated by two main activities: broader adoption and content-based engagement. Broader engagement means that community managers are the front line of engaging with customers, prospects, advocates, and others on social channels, but it doesn’t stop there. Other employees, or in some cases, all employees can engage on behalf of the company. Yes, this requires training. Yes, this requires trust. And it requires the right employees. Companies like Dell and Intel have placed certification programs in place for this purpose. And Zappos encourages employees to solve customer problems. Even after company layoffs, the employees were told they could respond to their community online, so long as they were honest and authentic.

The other mark of this stage is the creation of content for the purpose of engagement. This is content that is interesting, relevant, valuable, educational, and shareable. How can you help your customers and prospects do their jobs better? Provide tips for success. The first part of this approach is creating this content, but simply publishing it is just the beginning. Rather than responding with a 140 character tweet, community managers respond with a link to helpful content as well. Remember that employees have ingratiated themselves to the community they helped build. If the community were a small town, it would be one thing to walk your neighbor’s dog, but quite another thing to share your grandmother’s marble cake recipe.

How your organization engages over social media channels is just one component of Marketing Cloud’s Social Maturity Model. Answer 10 simple questions to see how your company ranks across all of the categories.