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Since businesses first began pushing into social media, we’ve all seen how valuable social can be for engaging with customers. That’s never been more true, and the past twelve months showed how important it is for the business world to continue to keep their focus on the audience.

The Sprout Social Index showed a 48% increase (during the first quarter of 2013) in messages sent to brands on Twitter or Facebook that required a response. User engagement increased 175% by the third quarter of 2013 as well. Industries from entertainment to utilities, and from hospitality to retail posted more than 100% increases in inbound messages on social between the third quarters of 2012 and 2013.

Clearly, your customers are making their voices heard. They want social customer care, and companies have never been better equipped to deliver. The trend shows no signs of abating in 2014. Here’s why good service and support should be at the heart of your social strategy for the coming year.

A Fine Relationship Line

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What many brands have discovered is how to make social media a mutually beneficial relationship with their customers. In the early days of businesses using social, they faced some heavy resistance from consumers and skepticism from business leaders who argued that the point of social media was to make connections between people. “Nobody wants to be friends with a business” was a common critical response.

It’s true that brand entities and individuals will not be “friends” in the most literal sense, but they can both find value in the right type of connection on social media. The benefits to companies have been clear: a large audience, inexpensive marketing, new sales opportunities, and fuller brand awareness. But to take advantage of those elements that social media offers, companies need to offer something to their fans in return. Humorous or educational content might be one thing to exchange. Discounts, loyalty programs and exclusive deals are another. A third, and often very successful way to barter, is to offer excellent support and service.

Brands that have been active in developing a culture of service have been rewarded with large numbers of social media connections. For instance, the Yahoo Customer Care Facebook Page has almost 69,000 Likes, while Zappos, famed for its service-centric company culture, has almost 1.4 million Likes. On Twitter, Comcast’s dedicated customer service account has more than 66,000 followers, while the parent company’s handle has just 35,000. When your clients know that they’ll have a positive experience, they’re more likely to pursue a social relationship with your company. If you continue to provide them a good experience, they’ll keep the bond with your brand.

Merging Worlds

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To deliver the best customer experience requires a shift in mindset for many businesses. At its core, social media is about making communication easier. For individuals, that communication could be a major announcement — such as sharing the news of a new job or a new baby. It could also take the form of casual post — a photo from a fun night out or something silly seen on the daily commute, for example.

The addition of businesses to social media networks meant that they needed to integrate themselves into this new, more casual and open type of communication. Sharing big news or funny photos was an easy enough behavior, but the learning curve came in how to address the conversation in a business context. As more and more companies create social profiles to pursue marketing or sales opportunities, their customers are closing the conversation gap by bringing their everyday questions, comments, and concerns to those channels.

Many brands have embraced this behavior by creating dedicated profiles just for support and service issues. But the next step is to be able to respond and have a real conversation with your customers who are actively reaching out to you. That could mean a bigger investment in your support and social teams, or the purchase of the right tool for social media management, or both. It’s one of the reasons many businesses are making a conscious effort to integrate their customer support and social media teams, so that followers get the exceptional experience they expect when they reach out on Twitter, Facebook, or any other social channel.

Use the Tools

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Companies are realizing the importance of social media being a two-way street, with both brands and customers reaping rewards in the interaction. In response, a variety of tools have emerged that expand what companies can bring to the table in that relationship.

For example, mining the potential gold mine of “big data” is another trend that has taken the business and social media worlds by storm. Leveraging large volumes of social media information in smart ways is going to be another way for companies to impress customers in 2014. If you can predict trends across your audience, you’ll be better prepared to respond to their needs and wants.

The landscape of social media hasn’t been static. In 2013, we saw upstart new networks such as Vine and Instagram Video spike in popularity. Stalwarts Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ added new features and revamped existing designs to better serve their members.

A savvy brand will not only see these changes as opportunities for new benefits in the bottom line, but also as a source for improving what it can offer customers in the long-run. Whether that translates to a better response time to problems or just a more enjoyable experience when interacting with a branded profile, the focus should be outward just as much as inward.

In 2014, we’ll see more and more emphasis on video and mobile in the social world. Companies that can mold these and other new developments into an integrated strategy that values customers will be most likely to see positive results by the year’s end.

[Image credits: Hamed Saber, Donald Judge, Tony Hisgett, Martin Terber]