Everyone is gaga for online interaction today – which is why Facebook, Yelp, Blogger, Twitter, Flickr and all the other social-media tools have turned group communication into a full-blown Internet revolution. In the beginning, it was just person-to-person, but now people want to interact with the companies they do business with, as well.

what is interactive marketingThe big surprise: All this interactivity has turned into a boon for small- and mid-sized businesses. In return for creating social communities, companies are able to use the resulting interactions to find new customers, generate referrals, gather valuable customer feedback and insights, grow their marketing lists, boost sales, create goodwill and build long-term loyalty – all for (get this!) little to no money.

Interested in learning how you can get in on the action? Here are 10 fast-track ideas for making your marketing more interactive (plus, next month, we’ll deliver 10 more):

1. Start using the tools – While you can incorporate two-way interactivity into your Web site, your marketing emails, even your direct-mail marketing campaigns, the Internet is bursting with simple social media tools designed specifically for the task.

For small- and mid-sized businesses, the most popular of these are Facebook, Blogger, Yelp and Twitter. For simple descriptions of each, as well as a list of all the alternatives, see Realtor Manny Riebeling’s blog

Start by establishing a few accounts and observing what other companies do (especially your competitors). Then start interacting. Within a matter of weeks, you’ll be comfortable enough to start creating social communities for your own business.

2. Create original content – Once you have a business blog, Facebook page and/or Twitter account, start using them to comment on industry trends and news, write reviews and recommendations, offer insights and free advice, feature customer success stories and more. These don’t have to be lengthy postings (in fact, it’s best if they’re not).

Take a low-key marketing approach. Spend about 80 percent of your time offering useful comments, insights and information, and 20 percent of your time promoting your own abilities, services and products.

Above all, remember: Your goal is to engage people in conversation, not just deliver messages. How do you do that? Encourage people to comment on, or post a reply to, everything you write (i.e. “Have you ever had the same thing happen to you?” or “If you have an alternative idea, we’d love to hear it.”).

3. Combine forces – To generate a loyal following for your social-media sites, you should try to produce new content once or twice a week. For many small businesses and busy independent contractors, there just isn’t time for that. The solution: partner with a like-minded professional or allied business, and take turns creating the content.

4. Retweet and redirect – Another solution for those too busy to create much social-media content: Refer your readers to the work of others. Write a little blurb about why you think an article, blog posting, etc. is so compelling, then include a link to it.

Twitter is perfect for this. You don’t even need to write a summary. Just a couple clicks, and you’re done. Even better, each time you retweet, the original author will often pay you back with a reply (and maybe even become a “follower”). For more about retweeting, see this simple explanation.

5. Add commenting capability – Because two-way communication is fundamental to the medium, most every social media tool has built-in capability for your readers to comment on what you write. But if you want to be truly interactive, incorporate a commenting interface into your Web site and electronic newsletter, as well.

6. Don’t fret about negative feedback – Yes, the idea of allowing people to post comments about your business (for all the public to see) can be a bit scary. And while you can use filtering technology to make the negative stuff disappear, your best bet, believe it or not, is to hang back and let people say what they want.

According to extensive research on the subject by Keller Fay, approximately 65 percent of word-of-mouth reviews are positive and only about eight percent are negative.

The key isn’t to waste resources trying to make all comments positive, but to watch for trends and shifts in opinion (which usually signal an underlying problem that should be addressed anyway).

7. Encourage user-generated content – Allowing people to comment is good, but getting them to actually contribute content of their own making, well, that’s when things really get cooking. For one thing, it reduces the pressure on you to create everything. Even better, however, customers and prospects love it when they’re allowed to share the spotlight.

  • Pose a question or present a new idea (a new logo design or an idea for a new product/service, for example), then let your social community vote on it.
  • Offer an incentive (a gift card, free services, an entry in a drawing, etc.) that will motivate your readers to write a testimonial explaining how your product or service has improved their life.

The more involved you get your target audience, the more engaged they’ll feel (and the more likely they’ll be to encourage others to join your social community).

8. Use all that content in your other marketing – Once you’ve got your social community voting, commenting and contributing, you can start incorporating the best results into your traditional marketing materials:

  • Include the results of online votes in your customer newsletter: “75% of our Facebook fans liked this logo design best” or “90% of those who read the Pro Aerobics blog say the Body Core class is their favorite – try it yourself this Wednesday.”
  • Send a marketing postcard featuring a variety of customer testimonials – or create a multi-card marketing campaign, with each postcard featuring a different case study.
  • Incorporate customer stories, photos, quotes and testimonials into your sales and presentation materials, marketing emails and brochures, even your promotional marketing products (calendars, notepads, pens, mouse pads, etc.).

By engaging and interacting with your target audience, you’ll be able to generate all kinds of cross-marketing opportunities.

9. Track your followers – Another great thing about social media is that every interaction is measurable and trackable. Using the analytical/profile features built into most social media tools, as well as all the third-party applications available, you can easily see how many people are using your sites, who they are and what they like, what types of content they find most useful, and much more. Then you can start tailoring content to your followers’ likes and dislikes (one-to-one marketing at its best).

10. Use surveys for additional feedback – For an even deeper understanding of what your target market wants, there’s online surveys. Using the services of Survey Monkey, Zoomerang and Zap Survey, small- and mid-sized businesses can easily create an online survey, monitor the response in real-time and quickly evaluate the results. Even better, the basic survey services are free (while the more advanced add-on features typically cost less than $20).

It can take a little time to develop a following, build relationships and get people interacting on a regular basis. So be patient. Soon enough, your efforts will reach a critical mass, and talk of your talents, products and services will begin to spread. Get started today (and look for 10 more interactivity ideas again next month).

Need help managing your social channels? Manage them with one simple tool from xpressdocs, Social HQ.

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