By Michael Jennings, Senior Researcher at Communispace

Businesses everywhere are now recognising the importance of online customer engagement. Specific social media strategies are adapted to suit each brand’s objectives and target audiences but, as a general rule of thumb, businesses have used social media over the past decade to generate sales through positive word of mouth. Online social marketing platforms are used to offer customers insider product knowledge, vouchers and samples and Facebook has been particularly popular with brands, as a means of connecting with their ‘fans’.

Fan pages are also used as a way for companies to ‘dip into’ their Facebook fan base to gather feedback; helping them to make crucial adjustments to their businesses. Yet research indicates that businesses may not be getting the full picture when using these pages to try to understand their consumers. While they remain a valuable platform to push messaging and promotions out to customers - especially the most loyal customers - businesses may want to consider other alternatives when looking for insights that can help them drive product development and marketing strategies.

Communispace recently produced a study analysing the ways in which consumers prefer to use social media to engage with brands. The key findings that should give businesses pause for thought are that consumers primarily go to public brand-sponsored sites to hear from brands. But when they want to talk to brands, they prefer private online environments, free from the eyes of their social network of friends .

The research also indicated that only a self-selecting subgroup of consumers tend to engage with brands on public sites, so if marketers rely solely on Facebook fan pages and similar forums for customer insights, the sample will be somewhat skewed, with an overrepresentation of avid brand fans and, in the case of Facebook polls, young respondents. Further, there are big differences in what motivates participation, and how consumers view brand experiences in public vs private online forums.

In light of this research, there is a need for marketers to clearly define their objectives and then ensure they have a solid grasp of the social media strategies available to achieve them. For example, businesses should identify if the purpose is to communicate new product launches and provide fans with benefits such as vouchers to drive brand awareness and word of mouth, or if it is to gather insights and feedback from customers to use for marketing purposes.

Results shows that a private online community is best-placed to develop an idea or project with customers and then the public social networks can be used to promote it.

In summary, the top tips that businesses of any size must consider when engaging with customers online are:

Remember why your fans are there

Keep in mind that consumers on social networking sites are more interested in hearing from you than in talking to you. Use sites like Facebook and Twitter for creating a presence by “pushing” information about your brand. Continue to create and maintain “fans” – let them be the first to know about new products and discounts – but don’t mistake “fans” for the broader consumer base.

Know who you’re listening to

Not all consumers publicly engage online, and those who do may be reticent to share certain types of information. Mine the Web and “pull” data about trends, monitoring your brand’s online reputation. Realise, though, that you are getting a surface-level understanding of your customers.

Create safe, reciprocal environments
Consumers are more likely to have insight-generating conversations if they are in a private, intimate online environment where they feel safe and know they’re being listened to. Make sure you monitor conversations in order to keep the dialogue respectful and productive. Close the feedback loop, whenever possible, by letting members know how their contributions are being used.

Don’t confuse sampling with insight

Communispace found that consumers go to public brand-sponsored sites to sample new products and to get coupons and discounts. Posing public questions about their lives is risky, because that’s not what consumers sign up for. Create private online communities for gaining deeper insights into not only what consumers think about your brand and products, but how they live their lives