animals kissing 7 Ways Your Small Business Can Better Engage Your Online CommunityWhen it comes to social media, engagement is the name of the game. Or so we’re told.

The purpose of social media for a business or organization is to be social. To connect with customers and constituents, build relationships in the context of community, and turn those relationships into positive outcomes for both parties. From the perspective of the business, that usually means getting your customers to spend some money purchasing your products or services. From a nonprofit perspective, that means getting people to volunteer, donate, or perhaps just share your content.

Regardless of what your desired outcomes are, it all starts with having a strong social presence that involves building relationships with, and engaging with, your customers and potential customers. Of course, engagement doesn’t pay the bills, and not all engagement is good engagement. But it’s an important place to start. Think of it this way, in your brick and mortar store or office, you can’t sell anything unless potential customers walk through your door. Not everyone who comes in and browses will purchase something, but some will. Your goal is to get more of them to do so, and speaking with them, engaging with them, is often the start of that process. Your social media presence is merely the online manifestation of your store, office, or other physical presence.

With that in mind, it is important to foster engagement across social platforms in very real ways. Create an atmosphere of two-way communication and mutual trust that actually encourages some form of engagement. Here are a few tips on things you can do to increase that sort of engagement, but one note before you read on: these are not tips or tricks. These are not something you manufacture to create the appearance of engagement. These are things you should only do from a genuine desire to engage. This can only happen if they come from the proper motives and mindset, something that must be built into your business model and cultivated.

1. Connect with your customers from your personal profile

This is one you might want to be careful with, but over time, some of your customers will become your friends. In those cases, feel free to “friend” your Facebook business page fans from your personal profile. You can connect with them personally and individually on Google +, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, or any other platforms that you have in common.

Understandably, this isn’t for everyone. Not all business owners will want to do this, and not all customers will be comfortable with this sort of connection. But if you do it carefully and with purpose, it can work. I connect with all of my clients, students, and a lot of potential clients this way, and for my type of business, I actually generate more business from this than I do from my business related social accounts.

2. Interact with them personally

Again, this one is a little tricky, and you never want to abuse the privilege of friendship. Once you’ve connected, and both of you are comfortable with that level of friendship, wish them a happy birthday, like their updates and photos (if you genuinely do like them), and generally engage them in conversation. However from this perspective, it’s best not to get into business conversations with them unless they initiate that conversation. Within the context of a local small business, I see this sort of thing take place every day.

In general, be social with them. Be their friend.

3. Connect with other businesses within your community

Part of being social and engaging is connecting with other businesses in your neighborhood. Connect with other business on various platforms both personally ad from your business pages. It’s not much but it’s a show of support for others trying to run small businesses in much the same way you are. Liking and connecting is often reciprocated, and partnerships, both loose and formal, can be formed.

4. Promote the work of others.

Once you’ve connected with other individuals and businesses, use your business account to support and promote the work of others. It’s not just about you. Don’t just promote your own products and services, but promote what those other businesses and individuals are doing. By doing this, you aren’t just engaging your online community, you’re expanding it, and allowing for greater levels of engagement. Not only will the other businesses appreciate this, but your customers will take note and appreciate it as well.

5. Go off course

Again, it’s not just about you. Feel free to go off topic. People generally don’t want to engage with you if all you do is talk about yourself. Take an interest in their interests. Talk about the weather, sports, or current events. Share those silly or heartwarming videos and pictures from time to time. There’s a reason why much of the discussion on social networks centers around a lot of those sorts of things: it’s what people are interested in.

6. Promote good causes/non-profits, particularly local to your community

Do you have a favorite cause? Is there a local nonprofit that could use your help? Perhaps you can give up some of your status updates in order to share the updates and information of these nonprofits. I would love to see every small business have at least one nonprofit partnership. With government funding of these groups drying up, these are the kind of partnerships that will ensure the survival of nonprofits that are doing great things in your community.

7. Contests

It might cost you a bit of money, but a well planned contest is great for engagement. Contests are great for encouraging likes, comments, and other sorts of engagement. It’s a great way to get your customers involved in what you’re doing. Just make sure you follow the guidelines for contests and promotions in the Terms of Service of each platform you are using. Just plan your contest wisely, and don’t do them too often.

Give a few of these a try, and see how they work for you. See if you start to notice a corresponding increase in engagement, but remember, most of these are long-term propositions; they won’t bring you results overnight. But isn’t that how relationships work in the first place?

What other methods do you have of building better engagement with your online communities?