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4 Social Media Tactics Marketing MBAs Should Master

Social media <a href=marketing" height="310" src="/imagesvr_ce/5397/SocialDiscussions_Feature.jpg" style="float: right; margin: 0px 8px; border: 1px solid black;" title="Social media marketing" width="450" />"Engage" is the word of the year with companies on social media. All anyone can talk about is how businesses need to better "engage" with their customers -- both actual and potential.

"It's no secret people love to talk and share," says Joe Grotto, who works in marketing and sales at Crane USA in Chicago, "and portraying the brand as just another person with related interests and a deep understanding of its followers lets you engage, support, serve, and have fun with the consumers you care about."

So what, exactly, do you say to all these followers? Here, experts share six conversations that marketing professionals should be having on social media:

1. Survey the land and learn what's new

Posting about the news can be tricky. You don't want to talk about irrelevant or controversial topics on a company feed. Instead, keep the focus on trends and happenings in your industry. "Brands tend to see the most engagement when they focus on subject matter that's brand relevant and of interest to their core customer, but isn't necessarily trying to sell product," says David Neuman, social media manager of Prime Visibility in Long Island, New York. For example, he adds, a company that sells basketball sneakers should bring up last night's NBA game.

2. Reward followers for engaging

Asking quick easy questions, such as "Which is your favorite, X or Y?" is a great way to get people talking, says Jayme Pretzloff, director of marketing at Wixon Jewelers in Minneapolis. Numbering the choices or giving them letters (A or B) motivates people to participate even more because it requires the push of one button, adds Pretzloff. You might also try asking followers to caption a photo or use one word to describe something, such as their day, he suggests.

Contests are a popular way to win over the masses. After all, if leaving a message on social media or "liking" something is enough to enter, why not throw your hat in the ring? Since the goal is to be more human, you can feel free to have a little fun on social media. For example, Maciej Fita, owner of Brandignity.com in Naples, Florida, has a client who hosts a contest to see who can guess how many jelly beans are in a photographed jar. The winner gets a gift card. "Discussions from that will most likely be harmless," adds Fita, "but engaging."

3. Emphasize positive customer service

Businesses have to perform a careful dance on social media when asking for real-life stories related to customer experiences. Of course, you want people to share their positive reviews, but there will always be that one guy who had a problem with the product or service (or is just a troublemaker) and posts harsh criticism or offensive comments. This is why companies need to vigilantly guard their social media accounts. Quickly remove any offensive language, and direct the person to contact you via email or phone off the social media page, suggests Samuel Swicegood, owner of Audio Toaster Broadcast Media in Cincinnati. "The best way to do it is to reply to a complaint with, 'We'll look into this immediately. Please send us a message here on Facebook/Twitter/etc. and we'll address your concerns directly,'" he adds. "This alerts other users that you are handling the issue."

There are different schools of thought when it comes to customer service on social media. Some experts believe it's better to leave these kinds of conversations -- questions about the business and products or services -- off social media because it opens you up to criticism and often requires getting private information from the customer. Others think it's the perfect place to flaunt how much you want to help customers, especially when they are in need. "Customer service discussions can be helpful on social media because other people might gain useful information as well as see that you are responsive and supportive of customer concerns," says Katie Mayberry, principal at Spyglass Digital in Orange, California. If things go south or you need to get sensitive info from the client, you can always take the conversation offline.

4. Solicit customer feedback

In a way, social media is like having a built-in focus group anytime you want one. It can be exciting for customers to give feedback on product development, says Mayberry. "By doing this," she adds, "you will increase trust, customer loyalty, and online engagement." But be smart about it. Ask for feedback when you are far enough along in a project that you won't be compromising the company. In other words, don't broach the subject at a time when you'll be alerting the competition and giving them the chance to get a leg up on you.

One thing is certain: businesses big and small have no choice but to start talking to their customers on social media. "There are already companies that exist solely via a Facebook page or an online store that predominantly uses social media," says Vincent Ferrer, content marketing strategist at Graphic D-Signs, Inc. in Washington Township, New Jersey. "Those who shun this medium are going to be hit by a rude awakening in the future."

What all the experts agree on is that social media gives marketing professionals the chance to humanize a company. So, get talking -- and remember that the customer is always right.