Most businesses are aware of the vital importance of good communication with their customers and stakeholders. Good communication enhances a company’s image, builds strong business relationships, and creates trust and willingness to continue a business partnership.
But what does this magical “good communication” entail? Part of it, surely, is engaging with customers, letting them know you care about them, introducing them to new products and services, and being available when they need help.
SMEs = Social Media Enterprises
This is where the power of social media comes in. A recent global study indicates that social media is among the five highest-priority technologies that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) consider worth investing in. To the SME, social media gives them better insight into all aspects of their business, including their customers.
Social media is uniquely focused on the all-important human factor that is so critical in business. It enables you to start conversations with existing and potential customers, to listen to them, discuss and explain your company’s point of view, and ultimately turn them into advocates for your business.
But in order to do this, you have to be present where your customers are and they have to be able to find you. Many SMEs already recognise the huge benefits of social media. They maintain Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and blogs to showcase products and services, and connect with customers.
Much advice is available to help SMEs grow their social media presence and exploit the wonderful opportunities for social marketing. But less has been said about the communication demands that conversations on social media entail.
Challenges in social media communication
Communicating on social media can be risky because of several conditions unique to the digital environment:
1. Control over messages is no longer possible. The capabilities of search engines like Google, and availability and sheer mass of users of social media ensure that information can be found relatively easily, managed by users as they please, and shared widely. Therefore, information endures.
2. Nothing online is private. People have become very clever Internet sleuths and can quickly dig up contradictory statements, unfulfilled promises and unresolved grievances that can do real damage to a company’s reputation.
3. Information spreads unpredictably. You simply do not know who will read and (mis)interpret your online messages.
Three recommendations for your business
What would help you to make the best communication choices in this volatile, uncertain environment? From years of industry consulting, teaching and interacting with business professionals, we know that success or failure of a communication act depends most significantly on:
• The audience perceiving it as authentic;
• The communicator’s ability to understand audience needs and create a message that meets those needs; and
• Appropriate timing of the message.
1. Be authentic
Consider applying an approach called radical transparency to the way your business communicates online. You need to be ethical and represent your company’s values truthfully. Always be honest and if there are promises, make sure they are fulfilled. Show that your company can be trusted. If your company made a mistake, apologise and offer a solution. Consider involving your customers in the development of that solution. Seek image and message consistency on all your social media platforms.
2. Know your audience
Identify your primary audience, your stakeholders, and think about their interests, needs, expectations, objections and anticipated reactions to your message. Neuroscience research has shown that emotion, rather than rational thought, is the more powerful driver of behaviour, so always be mindful of your audience’s emotions. This is an underrated aspect of workplace communication. When you post about new services or products, for example, pay special attention to features your customers are likely to find interesting and appreciate.
Also consider conducting a quick reputation audit by doing an online search of your company on Google or Bing. Check who is talking about you and what they are saying. This is an invaluable tool for instructive feedback that you will not get by any other means. It will show you if your company enjoys the goodwill of its stakeholders. If you find repeated negative comments, you may want to join those conversations to explain your point of view. But always do it courteously and respectfully.
As Aristotle said: To persuade an audience, three rhetorical appeals are needed: ethos – the communicator’s good character and credibility; logos – the appeal to the audience’s mind; and pathos – the appeal to their emotions. The trick is to get the proportions of these appeals right.
Appealing only through logos, say by providing lots of detailed product information, may not be enough to capture audience interest. They should desire the product or service. Engage their emotions by showing them how cool and enjoyable the product is. Never forget that social media is a people-oriented technology, so choose a warm, relational tone to signal empathy with your audience.
Make your messages visually attractive. Use short paragraphs and headings to make reading easy. If you maintain a Facebook page, for example, think not only about using text to convey information, but also visuals. Unusual, evocative or amusing pictures are often the start of rewarding conversations.
3. Time your message
Social media allows for rapid information spread which makes message timing extremely important. Do not leave your social media platforms unattended for too long. Engage in conversations, post frequently and respond to questions quickly.
If a problem occurs, show your audience straightaway that you are aware of it, even if the situation is muddy initially and you do not have precise information about the event. Post regular updates to keep the audience informed.
When an Asiana Airlines flight crashed at San Francisco Airport in July 2013, the first tweet about this accident appeared 30 seconds later. Within minutes, cyberspace was flooded with comments about the crash, but the first statement from Asiana Airlines was issued only four hours later – too late for today’s fast-paced world. Wild inaccuracies and damaging speculation thrive in such information gaps.
Social media provides amazing opportunities for engaging with your customers and growing your business. Understanding your audience, appealing to their intellect as well as their emotions, and timing your messages appropriately can help you minimise risks and reap the benefits an online presence can bring for the long term.
The writers are senior lecturers in the division of strategy, management and organisation at NTU’s Nanyang Business School. Ulrike Murfett leads the school’s communication management group, while David Yew teaches strategy consulting and business communication and is director of Strategy Projects At Nanyang (SPAN).
Published in The Business Times on 17 June 2014. This is part of an ongoing series View from an NTU professor.