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Read the Room: How to Engage Your Online Community with Intention

A robust social media strategy is made up of many tactics, not the least of which are moderation and engagement — chiming in on topics, interacting with followers, initiating conversations, and removing unwanted or inappropriate content. Social media is a two-way street, not a broadcast. Engagement shows that an organization is interested in feedback and values participation from its followers, but being intentional with these efforts is extremely important. The key is to show an audience that an organization is listening and that their feedback and participation is welcomed. Here’s how.

Build Guidelines

The starting point of any proactive engagement strategy is discovery. Identify what sort of experience the community wants and needs and align the organization’s engagement plan with those needs. Outline any FAQs, establish community guidelines, and communicate the proper etiquette with users. An organization will also want to evaluate how to appropriately “bookend” conversations; i.e., knowing when and how to stay silent, get involved, mitigate, or potentially shut down a particular topic.

Create Original Responses

Another piece of an organization’s engagement plan is to craft original, thoughtful responses that resonate with followers. Replies that are too generic or templated may end up coming across as robotic, unsympathetic, and repetitive, which can be more damaging than not responding at all. Social media is like a bulletin board in New York’s Times Square: Anyone can post or comment, and everyone can see your responses — and how helpful (or not) those responses are.

Alternatively, responding with irrelevant or inconsistent messages can come across as unprofessional or inauthentic. It gives the impression that the organization isn’t paying attention or doesn’t value feedback from its community members. This is especially important when it comes to customer service on social media. Intentional, thoughtful responses show acknowledgement, care, and value, and go a long way with customers.

Like and Reshare

Not all engagement has to be the written word. Liking and sharing posts submitted by the community is a form of engagement in and of itself, and it shows that an organization is paying attention to the conversation. Sharing user content like photos and videos is a double win: It gives the original contributor a sense of pride and it serves as interesting content to share with the larger community.

But keep in mind that even an act as simple as liking a post can be seen as validation or confirmation on behalf of an organization. For example, community members often speculate about new product features; a like from an organization on that type of post might come across as confirmation regarding an unannounced or anticipated feature when the reality may be far from that. The same goes for sharing posts from community members — always check the profile of the original contributor to ensure that there are no previous posts that could link a brand to unintended philosophies.

Use Emojis and GIFs

Not all comments require a text response. Sometimes just a reaction will do. That’s when emojis and GIFs come into play. They’re fun, whimsical, and a great way to show a customer that someone is listening. That said, it’s incredibly important to use appropriate and relevant emojis and GIFs and not to overdo it.

For example, if a customer writes positive feedback about a product or service, a simple “thank you” could work, but a GIF featuring a well-known character expressing gratitude is also appropriate in this case. However, using four heart-eyed emojis and three kissy-face emojis is not. In that same vein, too many emojis can come across as robotic and give the impression that the organization isn’t taking the time to actually read the comments. Remember that an organization’s social media presence is a reflection of its overall brand and personality. Maintaining a level of professionalism is critical, no matter how relaxed the community itself may be.

Remember, Less Is More

While interaction with followers is important, it’s equally critical to know when not to engage. In some cases, conversations between community members without interference from an organization is preferred, such as during speculation about a new product launch or unreleased features. Because social media is an open forum for discourse, an organization is bound to receive messages of all types. An effective moderation strategy is one that pays attention and takes action with intention.

Read the Room

Implementing a moderation and engagement strategy is a good starting point, but being flexible and fluid with the plan is an essential part of its execution. What is appropriate one week might end up being irrelevant or inconsiderate the following week, especially if crisis strikes. Emotions are high during a crisis, and it’s in an organization’s best interest to reevaluate the moderation plan if and when the landscape changes. Perhaps a historically snarky or playful brand might show more empathy than normal, or an organization might choose to direct any and all customer service inquiries to direct messages. If staffing is reduced, employees are working remotely, or organizational operating hours are different, it might be in an organization’s best interest to communicate that on social media where applicable. Whatever the case, the most important thing is to take stock, regroup, and implement changes as necessary.

Community moderation and engagement should be part of any organization’s approach to social media, but doing so requires serious intention and thoughtful consideration to avoid sounding like a bot. Taking the time to craft original responses, incorporating GIFs and emojis where appropriate, and being intentional about when and how to respond will always go a long way with any community.

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