Are You Listening to -- or Shouting at -- Your Customers Online?

Last Updated Oct 19, 2010 5:27 PM EDT

Remember Billy Mays?

The pitchman, whose unexpected death in 2009 rocked the advertising and marketing world, had a singular style of delivery that made him a household name and sold products for his clients. When Billy Mays shouted, we listened; not because we enjoyed being shouted at, but because we enjoyed watching him.

The thing is: You're not Billy Mays.

So if you've been "shouting" at your customers, it's time to stop, especially if you're trying to incorporate social media into your marketing strategy.

You've been doing this if:

  • Your Twitter stream is filled with breathless shrieks like, "<My company> just did _____!" or "Wow, what a great offer!" or you badger your followers with tweets like "ONE DAY ONLY! PLEASE RT!"
  • Your Facebook page links to incessant posts about how great your company is... and completely ignores questions or comments your "fans" might have asked.
  • Your Website tells visitors how they can buy "X" from you, but very little about why they should. Even worse, it doesn't tell them WHO you are.
If you haven't been doing any of this -- great! You get a gold star.

If, however, this sounds familiar, it's time to stop. Take a deep breath and un-Billy Mays yourself.

Here are four ways to start talking to, not shouting at, people online:

1. Let people know you're listening.
Have you been making a point to respond to @ messages in your Twitter stream, or comments to your Facebook page? If all you're going to do is broadcast messages, people are going to lose interest in you very quickly. If someone sends you a message, whether it's a compliment or a rant, respond to it. You'll be surprised at how quickly the compliments multiply and the rants start becoming raves.

2. "Hello, my name is..."
You know those nametags? The great thing about those is that once you slap one on, you can walk up to pretty much everyone at an event and strike a conversation. Social networks -- particularly those such as Twitter -- give you the freedom to do just that. Look for hashtags that might be of interest to you. (Those are the little "codes" people use through several social networks to curate conversations according to topic. Usually they consist of the # sign followed by a keyword, abbreviation, or phrase.)

An easy way to do this is to do a search on WTHashtag, or on Twitter search, and then set up a dedicated column in your Twitter application of choice that monitors those tweets. Alternatively, you can set up an RSS feed for the search. And then jump into the conversation.

It doesn't matter if you don't "know" those people; respond to the discussion at hand and you're likely to see not just your follower count increase, but that of visits to your website as well.

3. Mix it up.
Yes, you might be on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn for the sole purpose of finding a new customer base. But we do business with the people we like and we start liking them because we start getting to know them. The way to do that is by showing your personality in your updates... just as you would if you were at a cocktail party (some of the best business relationships start out at social gatherings).

Share something funny that happened to you, or something you're passionate about that isn't work-related, and you'll be one step closer to building a stepping stone that becomes a bridge over time.

4. Mind your online body language.
One of the great things about Billy Mays' pitching style was how he conveyed enthusiasm and energy through his body. The way he moved his hands, the way he leaned into the camera, even the way he moved certain muscles on his face -- all these were designed to draw the viewer in, not keep them out.

In social media, even though you may not have a camera on you, you can still do this.

For example:

  • How many exclamation points do you use in an update? One or two once in a while are probably fine; more than that -- especially if you make a habit of doing it -- will make you seem overeager at best, and vapid at worst.
  • Do you have a tendency to post your updates in ALL CAPS? Very few of us can get away with doing this on a regular basis, because that literally comes across as screaming. You're not Kirstie Alley. Dump the all caps.
  • Not a "smiley face" person? That's understandable. But when you're faced with the limitation of using 140 characters (sometimes a few more, if you're posting to Facebook, for example), it's OK to add an emoticon or two to make sure the intent behind your update gets across. Just don't do it all the time.
If there's one thing social media has made clear to marketers, it's that we have to stop shouting for attention, no matter how good our product may be. It's the quickest way to ensure your audience zones you out -- and your business will follow.

I think even Billy Mays might have agreed.

Shonali Burke is Principal of Shonali Burke Consulting where she helps turn businesses' communication conundrums into community cool. She's considered one of 25 women who rock social media. Find her on Twitter @shonali.
Image courtesy Flickr user Joaquin Villaverde, CC 2.0