How exactly do you connect with your customers on social media?

Most small business owners I've met are very keen to know more about social media but have no idea how to successfully connect with new and existing customers via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and all the rest.
In this July update, I'd like to share some great quick-start ways to better connect with your existing customers and prospects on social media. But before I get on to the how, let's consider why it's so important to make these online connections. 
Why connect with your customers?
Social Media has completely changed the sales & marketing paradigm in that customers are far less likely to make a purchase in direct response to an advert or sales pitch.  Now a customer will often look to online reviews and social media comments before committing to a purchase.
However, we as business people still have an opportunity to prove our credibility on social media when we share our expertise and demonstrate our ability to nurture customer relationships.
In practice this means we: 
  • keep up-to-date with our customer's likes, news, interests and issues
  • respond to their online questions and queries
  • offer encouragement and feedback
  • share conversations about our mutual interests
These public social media conversations help strengthen our relationships with existing customers.  And, as an added advantage, they also encourage new customers to look more deeply at what we have to offer.
With the sheer magnitude of social media content being produced every day, it can seem daunting to keep up-to-date with all these online conversations.  So how do we keep tabs on what our existing customers are saying online?  
Quick-start ways to connect
Thankfully, some clever software developers have caught wind of our dilemma and there are now a few quick-start ways to keep up with your customer's social media content.   
Rapportive for GoogleMail
The best option I've seen to date comes from Rapportive. This is a Google-friendly application that can be setup on your GoogleApp Mail account within minutes.  
Once installed, Rapportive shows information on all your contact's social media accounts whether or not you are currently connected via these networks.  Therefore, for example, if you have a customer who's on LinkedIn with whom you've not connected, the application provides a link to connect directly from GoogleMail.   This can save a great deal of research time and gives you a quick way to link together. 
This information is displayed in an information panel in the space where Google Ads usually appear alongside your emails.  When you hover on a social media icon with your mouse, your contact's latest posts and tweets display within a speech bubble to the side.   It also takes your profile summary info from LinkedIn and displays it at the top of the panel.  
Quick to install and get value from, this is a fantastic app if you want to get connected fast.
Microsoft Outlook Social Connector
Microsoft Office has also integrated Social Media Connector as a 'to-go' feature in Office 2010.  There are also Upgrade downloads if you want to add it to an earlier version of Outlook.   I've not tested this yet, but I'm told by other users that it works well and in a very similar way to the Rapportive application. 
Once these applications are up and running, you'll have a great short-cut to connecting to your customers on social media.  One downside of the Microsoft Social Connector is that it doesn't show Twitter account details. I've not got to the bottom of why that is, but it does show LinkedIn and Facebook information which is still of great use.  Any insight on the Twitter omission is much appreciated!
Hootsuite Alternative
If the above applications are not for you, you can do your own research or ask your customers for their Twitter details.  Add their Twitter addresses to a Twitter List and then setup the list as a stream in a programme like Hootsuite which enables you to manage all your social media accounts in one place.
Once you have setup your new Hootsuite 'Customer' stream, you can more easily view your customers' tweets or posts in one place.  This makes it easier to monitor and respond to your customer's social media conversations on a daily basis.
But I've got a very large volume of customers.  
If that's the case, concentrate on connecting with your top and most loyal spenders.  The additional attention should help turn these important customers into business advocates who spread the word further afield.
And some of my clients won't want to broadcast our business association
When confidentiality is a concern, it's better to offer support, information and encouragement by email.  However, you can still pick up on potential topics of conversation by keeping an eye on their public social media streams.
Like any networking or relationship building activity, you will still need to allocate time to monitor and nurture these online conversations.  However, once you start implementing this activity on a regular and consistent basis, you are sure to see the benefits with more referrals coming via existing customers who are loving the attention and becoming your greatest fans. What's more, you're going to win again by attracting the attention of new leads who like the way you're communicating with your existing customers.
Next month
In August,  I'll share tips on how to generate brand awareness for your business / product via social media.
Got a burning issue?
What issue are you struggling with most when it comes to using social media for marketing?   Feel free to post your answers below and I'll be happy to help with further advice.
More about Susanne Currid
As founder & managing director of The Loop, I help small to medium sized businesses by providing digital marketing consultancy, training and out-sourced marketing project management.   
Whether you're looking to increase brand awareness, generate leads or nurture more business opportunities with existing customers, I can create a tailored marketing plan that will realise your specific business objectives.
To find out more, please get in touch and I'll be happy to chat further about your business objectives and marketing requirements for 2010/2011.