When it comes to social networks, it's not all about you

Businesses should use social media accounts to engage customers and build brands, not to deploy heavy-handed sales tactics.

Don't listen to the songs or pay attention to the sassy, meme-y images floating around Facebook; when it comes to chatting people up with your business's social media accounts, it's definitely not all about you.

A person who follows your business's blog or Facebook account understands that he's opening the door to receiving the occasional pitch, but nobody enjoys being banged over the head with advertising day in and day out. When someone follows your business, it's because they want to engage your business, not be spammed by it. What's social about shoving the equivalent of a billboard in front of someone's face every half hour on Twitter?

So what is a traditional social media presence good for? Successful social media communication efforts are often based around building your business's brand by creating and nurturing a relationship with your customers. If you want your soft pitches to convert--hard pitches are a hard sell on social networks--you'll need to earn your followers' trust, first.

In practice, this means simply cutting back on the blatant advertising. Many social media marketers suggest using an 80/20 rule: talk about interesting topics 80% of the time, and only actively sell your brand about 20% of the time. That's not a hard-and-fast rule, however. At the Intuit Small Business Blog, which won BtoB Magazine's award for the best corporate blog earlier this year, writers are actively discouraged from writing about Intuit products; in fact, they're required to consult the editor before doing so. (Full disclosure: I know, because I occasionally contribute to Intuit's blog.)

So what do you talk about if not your company?

The traditional route involves talking about topics related to your industry: trends, news, and tidbits that your followers will find interesting and enjoyable. For example, Ford recently shared an article about a list of the top ten greatest car designers working today. Within two hours, the post had more than 150 Likes and over a dozen shares.

Another interesting tactic is to let your customers do the talking for you. Ford runs a weekly contest that highlights a fan's photo of a classic Ford automobile, And Taco Bell frequently reshares images and messages that adoring fans send along. If your customers say you're great, you don't have to--and that makes it social sharing, as opposed to blatant advertising in the minds of readers.

Several businesses are successful at building brand recognition while simultaneously engaging followers by sharing interesting trivia, history and behind-the-scenes looks at their company and products. Your fans voluntarily followed your business; they obviously want to hear about it. Just don't ruin it with too many hard pitches.

Ask your followers' questions. Answer their questions. Point them towards intriguing content. In a nutshell, keep them engaged and happy. Communicate!

If you're wondering when the payoff comes, consider this: in a late 2011 survey by social marketing firm MrYouth--whose clients include Coke, Symantec, Proctor & Gamble, and several other heavy hitters--52% of all social media users surveyed said they are willing to spend more money on products from brands they trust, compared to just 29% of non-social media users. Even more directly, social media users were twice as likely as non-users to make or receive a gift recommendation--and those recommendations were twice as likely to lead to an actual purchase.

Note to readers: This article addresses direct communications from your social accounts and initiatives rather than more advertising-orientated aspects of social media like sponsored Tweets or Facebook Storefronts.

Brad Chacos is a freelance technology and business writer. His work has appeared in Laptop Magazine, the Intuit Small Business Blog, Maximum PC, and elsewhere.

This story, "When it comes to social networks, it's not all about you" was originally published by PCWorld.

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