At Buffer, we think a lot about the future of social media.

It started as a way for friends to connect online, evolved into a broadcasting channel, and is now a place for brands to provide personalized, human experiences with their audience and customers.

Social media is as much about engagement with other people as it is about sharing content.

It’s why we call it “social” media.

Here are just a few reasons why social media engagement is a vital part of any social media marketing strategy.

1. Simply broadcasting content results in low reach and referral traffic

Over the last few years, organic reach (on Facebook in particular) has dropped so dramatically that some people have questioned the viability of organic posting at all.

In 2017, Buzzsumo analyzed 880 million Facebook posts and uncovered a sharp decline in engagements. This is linked to a perceived push by social media platforms to encourage brands to use advertising to boost their reach.

Facebook Engagements research

In 2018, Facebook also announced that they would change their post ranking algorithm to prioritize personal posts over brand page posts in the News Feed. A key part of the change is that they are using “meaningful engagement” as an important signal that a post should be prioritized.

In other words, posts with more active and thoughtful interactions will get more reach.

There’s a fascinating insight into why Facebook are taking this approach in this explainer video from their Newsfeed team.

“Interacting with people is associated with a greater sense of well-being… On the other hand, just scrolling through your Facebook feed, passively reading or watching without interacting with others, tends to make people feel worse.” – Facebook

2. People expect businesses to respond on social media, and fast

Twitter and Facebook have become the first places people go to for customer support, product enquiries or just to say thank you to businesses.

Back in 2013 it was estimated that 67% of consumers use Facebook and Twitter for customer service, and that was five years ago! With the rise of Facebook Messenger usage, that number is likely to have trended upwards as over 8 billion messages are exchanged between people and businesses on Messenger alone each month.

This report by Sprout Social also suggests that using social media is now the top choice for people seeking customer service.

Graph about social media being top choice for customer care

The speed at which business respond is also important. According to research commissioned by Twitter in 2016, 71% of their users expect a response within an hour.

3. Social media engagement increases loyalty and generates word of mouth.

People love positive interactions with brands on social media. Here’s just one example of nice tweet someone shared about Buffer.

screenshot of a positive tweet

There’s also a ton of data that suggests that answering complaints on social media increases customer advocacy and reduces churn. For example, Jay Baer’s research found that answering a complaint on social media can increase customer advocacy by as much 25%.

On the flipside, in Sprout Social’s research they discovered that 30% of customers who are shunned by brands on social media are more likely to switch to a competitor.

What’s more – social media experiences are, by design, both public and easy to share. This creates a compounding impact on positive experiences, compared to say, an email exchange or phone call.

The Twitter exchange below is a neat example of how thoughtful and fun social engagement between a customer and brand can go viral. Aside from garnering hundreds of retweets, it got picked up by news outlets including Buzzfeed and the Mirror.

4. You can learn directly from customers and prospects

We use social media to learn from our customers and community about how we can improve their experience.

Having this direct line to customers enables us to build relationships, develop empathy and ultimately build a better product for our users.

Social Media Engagement Challenges and How to Overcome Them

Looking again at the Sprout Social study, apparently brands are only responding to 11 percent of messages on social media and are sharing a whopping 23 promotional messages for every response to their social audience.

If we extrapolate this into the makeup of total social media activity, the contrast is stark and pretty worrisome!

social engagement vs promotion chart

The benefits of social media engagement seem clear, so why haven’t more brands fully embraced it as a marketing strategy?

I believe there are three key challenges that, on the surface, seem quite daunting for marketers and their organizations.

  1. Finding the resources to engage with all relevant conversations
  2. Quality control: maintaining a consistent, authentic voice and tone
  3. Measuring the impact of social media engagement

The best brands on social media turn these challenges into opportunities, and this is how you can nail your social media engagement too.

1. Engaging with all relevant conversations

Staying on top of “mentions” on social media, tapping into relevant conversations, and filtering out irrelevant social chatter is the basis of most social media engagement strategies.

Our marketing team at Buffer uses our own product, Buffer Reply, to focus in on relevant conversations across our key social networks and respond to them quickly.

Buffer Reply Dashboard

Reply is a little different to other social media engagement tools because it is more like an inbox rather than a collection of feeds or streams.

It’s a bit like a traditional email inbox, where all relevant messages, whether they’re from Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, appear in the order that the conversation was started. Having threaded conversations neatly organized in one inbox saves our team a huge amount of time. We don’t have to jump between multiple streams and we don’t have to dig through every conversation to see what it’s about or whether it needs a response.

Our team also uses Reply to prioritize certain conversations – for example customer support issues. We have automation rules (which you can learn more about here – they’re quite magical) set up to move certain types of conversations to specific folders, so that we can better manage how we respond to them.

Screenshot of automated rules in Reply

We also use filters to weed out conversations that on the surface appear like they might be relevant but are actually totally unrelated to our business.

Buffer Reply filters screenshot

Reply isn’t the only tool available to help make social media engagement easier and minimize the time it takes to find and respond to social media posts and messages. There are a number of different options available, depending on your needs. Here’s a list we put together with some of our favorites.

2. Maintaining a consistent, authentic voice

Putting yourself out there on social media can be scary. Will people like what you have to say? Are you putting your brand in its best light?

Having an authentic voice on social media is important but not as easy as it sounds. It’s important because it humanizes your brand – whether that’s a company big or small, or a personal brand – and encourages people to respond and talk about you positively.

It’s difficult because things like “voice” and “tone” are quite subjective. Here’s how Kevan, Buffer’s director of marketing described the challenge in a previous blog post:

“We don’t want brands talking at us as if we are dollar signs. We want authentic communication. Finding a voice for your social media marketing can be difficult because the concept is somewhat unlike other optimization strategies online. Voice is not a statistic you can track or a design element you can tweak. Voice goes deeper than that.”

As an example of how to develop your social media voice, here’s a four-part formula suggested by Stephanie Schwab, writing for Social Media Explorer. She breaks voice down into tone, character, language, and purpose.

A chart about finding your brand voice

Establishing a voice and tone is also one of the subjects in our Social Media 101 email course. You can check out the notes for it here (and feel free to take the entire course if you’re interested!)

Having a clear voice and tone guide is especially helpful when there are multiple people engaging on social media on behalf of a brand.

But what does that look like in practice?

At Buffer, we have a tone guide (which you read about here along with some other guides that we think are quite inspirational). We use this guide to help empower our team. We also provide our whole team with access to Reply to engage with our community.

Here are some tactics we use to engage with people on social media authentically and efficiently.

Personal signatures

Everyone on our team has a personal signature set up in Reply to help humanize our social media responses.

screenshot of Reply settings

Here’s what it looks like on Twitter:

A twitter reply

GIFs and emojis

Emojis and GIFs have become a massive part of the language of social media. We use emojis and GIFs to add personality to our social media conversations and convey our feelings more efficiently.

A facebook reply

Assigning conversations to teammates

Reply has a neat feature that enables us to automatically assign social media conversations to specific people on the team. If it’s a technical support query, it might go to one of our customer support advocates. If it’s a shoutout or someone seeking general social media advice, we can route the message directly to our social media manager Bonnie. This helps us provide a better, faster experience for the people we engage with.

As a backup, we also have a some pre-written replies to some of the more common (or tricky) conversations we have on social media, which are available to our team – only if they need it.

Saved Replies screenshot

In general, we encourage each other to write our own, personal social media messages.

3. Measuring the impact of social media engagement

In my opinion, being able to quantify the return-on-investment is the biggest thing that holds brands back from investing in social media engagement.

It’s often not quite as straightforward as measuring clicks on an ad campaign, or sales from an email promotion.

At Buffer, we measure success through multiple lenses.

Customer support impact

How many messages are we responding to on social media? Are we responding (and resolving issues) faster? Is it reducing the number of support requests we receive through other channels, like email?

Reply tracks our key customer support metrics for us and lets us export the data to CSV so that we can aggregate it with statistics across our other main support channel – email.

Below is an example of one of our reports in Reply. It lets us compare message volume with response time. We can also see how much engagement is happening on each platform.Reply response time screenshot

Brand impact

The impact social media engagement has on your brand is more difficult to measure because someone’s journey with your brand is nonlinear and attribution is murky. Brand perceptions are built up over time and through multiple channels.

At Buffer, the brand metric that we focus on is reach – the number of people who are coming into contact with Buffer each week. We have an annual goal for reach, and we track weekly progress against it. For example, this year we are aiming to reach 105 million people!

Brand reach goals

We treat social media as a component of total reach, and it is a big contributor for us to our total reach number.

In the table below, Social Reach is the total number of people who see our content within a social media feed and Social Engagement is the cumulative total of likes, comments, shares and clicks, etc.

We include Social Engagement because it helps us measure the quality of our reach. By engaging with our audience on social media ourselves, we try to drive both of these numbers up!

Social media reach and engagement

Ultimately, how you measure the effectiveness of engaging with people on social media depends on your goals.

We believe that social media is for branding – so we engage with people on social media to provide quick and friendly customer support, build affinity with our brand, and grow our reach.

You might have different goals for your social media program, so how you measure your social media engagement should line up with those goals.

For example, your goal might be to develop an email list, or build a network of influencers, or drive downloads of your app.

Over to you

Do you have a social media engagement strategy? How do you measure it? We’d love to learn from other marketers! Feel free to leave a comment below or engage with us on social media. 😉

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