The answer is always and as early on as possible. Each conversation is an opportunity to strengthen your brand image, provide relevant information, and potentially steer the conversation. With that said, it is important to choose your moments and when you do begin to converse, thank your proponents/supporters, as it will help build your brand evangelists.
If the conversation has a negative sentiment, you gain the ability to take steps to correct the problem. Now here I think it is very important to stress that if they have a legitimate complaint, do not get defensive. If you become defensive, it will alienate your brand from the hearts of the community. Instead, steer them to an email, or a phone number, and assure them that the problem will be rectified. Then fix the problem. The goal is to get them off of a public channel. Once the situation has been resolved, your bond with that customer will be even stronger because they know you care.
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What are people saying about your brand online? If you just answered
If the conversation is neutral, you can use it as an informal Q&A, answering questions concerning your brand or product. Use this as an opportunity to provide links to relevant content within your website, and to outside sources that support your brand/product. This is brand awareness 101, a way of educating new potential consumers of your brand’s culture. Keep this conversation positive. It is okay to touch on benefits, but do not get into situations where you have to compare and contrast yourself to your competitors. If it happens, stay positive and remember to comport yourself as the leader in your industry, even if you really aren’t. Stay away from negative comments, as this is a deep dark hole you do not want to fall down.
Positive conversations are the best. Not only are you dealing with a responsive audience in general, it is more likely the conversation will keep going if it is positive, creating a larger social buzz. This can be a great opportunity to mention additional benefits of the product that are little known, and also create buzz for upcoming products. The goal here is to be friendly and make those engaged in the conversation feel included. Do not use this as an opportunity to preach. These are your potential evangelists. Arm them with what they need to preach for you. While you are having these conversations, also remember that you are being observed. There are many people out there, some who do not like to use social channels to participate, or who stumbled across the conversation after it took place. This is especially true if the conversation took place in a forum or as comments to a blog post. Any of these previous situations will attract these casual observers, and their numbers can be many times greater than the actual participants themselves. How you comport yourself will leave a lasting impression in their memory.