The stakes have never been higher when it comes to customer service; 46% of shoppers in the UK under 25 use social media to comment on their customer experience.
Amazon's Jeff Bezos describes a brand as "what other people say about you when you're not in the room". But today's customers are less discreet - in fact they are quite happy to shout about you on social media if you get it wrong. So how can you use social media to improve the customer service you provide?
According to a study by American Express, companies that respond to and resolve complaints via social media see 21% more sales than companies that handle complaints on the telephone or in written form.
Social media savvy consumers have higher expectations, but they'll spend more when they get good service and quickly ditch a company when they don't. So when you respond well, in real time, customers are impressed and become more loyal.
As a result, those taking a social approach to customer service are raising the stakes significantly in their favour. You'll now even see big brands signing off tweets with the first name of the person that wrote the tweet to add a personal face to the communications.
Digital is a great leveller. With so much choice for consumers, there's no room for average, mediocre or just okay. That means a smaller business offering the personal touch can really stand out.
Businesses built on products that truly deliver - with customer care that is personal and responsive - are creating genuine competitive advantage despite their limited budgets.
This is how King of Shaves - as a start-up with little budget - became a strong challenger brand in a market dominated by billion-dollar rival, Gillette. Up against their £40m UK advertising budget they used an incredibly personal service on social media to create genuinely happy customers who then went on to do their marketing for them.
Social is more than just a way to get your message out there; it's also fantastic for listening to your audience, responding to their needs and tracking your competition.
And it is great for getting feedback from your current customers and new prospects. Feedback can be given on your profile or it can be what people are saying about you in the feeds. So listen up; both positive and negative feedback will help make your business better and will make you more interactive on social.
At the heart of social customer service is transparency and honesty, but this isn't always easy when things go wrong. It is at this point that many brands try to stop anything negative going online but this can quickly backfire. Instead, look at it as an opportunity to be great - recognising that by responding to a criticism in a positive way you will often impress that customer, as well as all the others listening in on the conversation.
We all have those heart-in-the-mouth moments. Launching our social sharing tool Openr we've certainly had a few - including our entire domain not being available and users having to take to Twitter to tell us about the issues.
The trick is to treat customers as you would want to be treated yourself. Always respond to comments and when things do go wrong, make sorry the first word. Think about it from their perspective - they don't care if the issue wasn't actually your fault. It isn't their fault either, so sorry is the first step to making it up to them.
It seems strange that social media - a technology - is making businesses more human, honest and transparent, but it is undoubtedly raising the bar for customer service. Those that embrace it are standing out for all the right reasons.
There's a new strategy in town. It's turning the SEO tables, causing established giants to fall by the wayside as smaller competitors make their mark in search rankings.
It's powerful; it promises to deliver sought-after SEO treasures, top spots on SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages), without any technical wizardry or dark magic required at all. How can this be done? How can such small rivals take on these seemingly impassable contenders - and win?
The truth is that the strategy behind these impressive feats does not involve anything mysterious or untoward. There are no short cuts; nothing clinging to a grey area, trying to escape the all-seeing eye of Google. The winning strategy is completely above board.
The great secret behind this success is actually disappointingly straight forward; it's about doing what you say you will and doing it well. The problem with so much SEO advice is that it simply over-complicates a field that is already littered with jargon.
Too many brands enter into some kind of bizarre battle with Google, believing there is no other way to compete than to use underhand tactics, trying to navigate the SERPs while skirting the threat of penalties.
This is not the way to win. The way to beat larger, more powerful rivals is to take them by surprise; by doing it honestly and transparently. It's about going back to basics.
What is a website for? Is to inform, entertain or persuade your customers into making a sale? If you can create a website that offers interesting, relevant, regularly updated content, it will become worth seeking out and the powers that be - aka search engines - will recognise it as such.
There is no need for dirty tactics. Sites are currently being compromised in this incessant race to get to the top, brands are receiving hefty penalties, all the while losing business.
This is all entirely unnecessary. The way to make your mark on SERPs is simply to maintain a website which does what it says on the tin and develop good quality, clean links from sources which you trust and build good relationships with.
If brands stopped cutting corners and using SEO "tricks" they would be in for a pleasant surprise. SEO is like anything else; if you do it well, you will be rewarded.
So you've decided to start a business and join over 4.9 million other small businesses in the UK. You've got an amazing company name and you've bought the website domain. You've a great idea for a product or service and you know your potential customer base. Now just how do you let them know you exist?
Some start-ups are lucky enough to have a client list from day one. Often they have spun out of an existing business or they already know someone looking to buy what they can provide. Other new companies have to work harder to attract their first customers. Once are up and running, the next issue is how to continue their turnover growth and reach a wider audience, with limited marketing funds.
In today's business environment, clients and prospects expect certain marketing elements to be in place. Without them, a start-up can't be seen to compete with established businesses.
The marketing communications mix can seem daunting to many non-marketers. Direct mail, advertising, publicity, PR, packaging and sales promotion can seem daunting. They are not. Marketing is simple if you keep in mind your target audience, the message to be conveyed and the action(s) you want clients to take. Thanks to the internet, most entrepreneurs can kick off their own marketing plans on a small budget and with limited promotional experience.
The first step in any new marketing campaign is to get the logo right. You'll also need a strapline; a phrase that encapsulates what you do and that will underpin your marketing strategy for the long term. Freelance websites provide a low-cost way to get bids for logo design work. Website domain sellers offer technologies for website design and hosting, sometimes for free or charged for on a monthly basis, often with search engine optimisation as well.
The next step is social media. Most people already use social media and so marketing their new business comes easily to them. You can follow online guides to set up your Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn pages. Link them where possible and post relevant content to build a following. It's also worth using Google Adwords but be careful to test and start with a small budget.
Many new businesses also find that promotional merchandise helps them to establish their name within a local area or sector. Here, success lies in working with a promotional gifts distributor and selecting the right products to brand with your logo and contact details. Then it's all about getting them out to your target audience - through exhibitions, sales visits, meetings and via mailshots, introductory letters and flyers.
Imagine the impact of handing out 1,000 items branded with your company details to potential clients and seeing a high prospect to new client conversion rate. That's the power of promotional merchandise.
When you are setting up a new business, one of the biggest challenges is finding your target audience and making them aware of what you have to offer. This can be daunting but, by following this step-by-step guide, you can identify and target the perfect potential clientele for your business.
It’s vital to understand who you think will want to buy what you are offering - based on everything from gender and age to geographical location. Are your products or services only available in one location, or can they be distributed on a larger scale? It's often worth brainstorming with a few close friends and family to build up a picture of who is most likely to become a valued customer.
You should then delve deeper into your audience segmentation, as there may be a psychographic (values, attitudes and personality traits) aspect to your audience insight. Is there a potential market among people with a particular lifestyle or demographic, such as high-earners or young professionals?
Think of this process as a funnel; at the top you have the broader segments, such as gender and age. Each segment thereafter is more detailed and focused, such as where they live, their values and personal attitudes. This will help you to build up a detailed picture of who you are targeting and give an idea of how to reach them.
For example, if you are an IT contractor your target audience is likely to be businesses that have a knowledge gap in their workforce. According to the Nixon Williams Contractor Survey, 85% of contractors in the UK are male, so your advertising efforts are more likely to be male-focused.
Now think about the kind of businesses that might require your services; what do you offer that is most in demand? For IT contractors, this could be website and online support or back-end system development.
Once you have a target clientele in mind, the next step is to think about how you are going to reach them. With any client communication, it’s important to think about what type of client they are, whether they are existing customers, new prospects or a previous client. By segmenting your customers this way you can target your offers appropriately, whether you are trying to lure back lapsed customers or attract brand new ones.
There are a host of channels you can use in order to reach your audience, from social media to email marketing. You simply need to find out which channels your prospects use the most.
When it comes to marketing copy, you need to show the client what your services can do to solve a problem they have. This is where you can often tailor your message to different customer segments, including business and consumer clients.
Your marketing messages should be in line with your branding strategy; they need to be direct and easy to remember. A great example is Apple’s "Think Different" tagline; it's short, concise, to the point and, most of all, memorable.
If you are an IT contractor, there are lots of other ways to ensure that you are marketing yourself effectively. For example:
Practice makes perfect; keep refining this process until you have a strategy that works for you. Above all, keep gathering knowledge on your clients' preferences, including how they receive their news.
On-going research on your target market will help you determine who is more likely to buy as well as the type of marketing methods they will respond to.
Copyright © 2016 Rachel Smith, technical writer at Nixon Williams' Vantage Online Accounting.
2015 seems to have flown by; we've certainly been busy here at Donut HQ covering small business news, publishing expert blogs and adding to our ever-expanding library of marketing resources for small business owners.
We know you've been busy too - when you run your own business it can feel as if there are never enough hours in the day. So if you are pushed for time but you want to read the best marketing advice and inspiration for small firms, check out our pick of the top ten blogs of 2016 (below).
We're planning lots more content in 2016, including a raft of new articles on ecommerce coming in the spring. So do come back in 2016 for more news, views and advice.
In the meantime, we'd like to thank all of you for supporting Marketing Donut - it's your insights, comments, blogs and tweets that make the Donuts such a fantastic resource for UK small businesses. We'd especially like to thank all our experts and bloggers that have generously shared their knowledge with us.
And, of course, thanks to you all for visiting, reading our content and sharing it. If there's anything you'd like to see in the future, please let us know.
We'll be back on 4 January with more news, articles, blogs, tweets, offers and advice - everything you need to help you run your business better.
Have a great Christmas and a fun new year!
The Marketing Donut team
Mike Southon: How to grow your business when you've hit a brick wall
Emma Pauw: Mastering the art of social listening
Shweta Jhajharia: How to qualify leads in just ten minutes
Eric Moeller: 18 ways to talk to your customers on social media
Ashley Carr: How to get journalists on side
Grant Leboff: How to make your customers the heroes on social media
My daughter was listening to the song Firework by Katy Perry the other day.
The first line says: "Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?"
And I thought: "No, I don't actually". So I stopped listening.
Then, I received a marketing email with the title: "Are you a new author living near Croydon?"
I said to myself: "No. But I'm a best-selling author living near Liverpool." (Sorry if that sounds a bit big-headed but it's true; my books have sold pretty well.)
And perhaps my favourite of all…
I once received an email called "Looking for a hair makeover for the weekend?". One quick glance at my photo will show why I didn't think this email was meant for me.
The fact is, many communications start like this - with something irrelevant, or dull or both. But, if you want people to engage with you immediately, you have to start well.
When you do, you both feel better. Your recipient knows why they should listen. So they do. And this improves your confidence as you deliver it.
Everyone knows the importance of first impressions. I guess that's why, when I share this idea with people, they normally say "but my first impressions are always good."
But are they? Or do you sometimes use:
Hardly riveting, are they?
Fortunately, it is pretty easy to do it better; and engage people better as a result.
In fact there are only two steps:
For example, let's re-write the above three, assuming you're talking to someone whose #1 thing is to improve their competitive advantage:
A great start doesn't guarantee a great outcome, of course. The rest of your communication must be good too. But start badly, and you might well never recover.
My tennis coach's says I should improve my serve because, when I get it right, it enables me to dictate the point more than any other shot. In his words: "your serve is the only shot where you aren't reacting to your opponent. So it's the only shot you have 100% control over. Do it well, and they have to react to you. So it sets the tone for everything that follows."
When you communicate, is your first serve - your title and intro - impressive enough? Or do you sometimes feel like you're a plastic bag?
Copyright © 2015 Andy Bounds is a communications expert, speaker and the author of The Snowball Effect: Communication Techniques to Make You Unstoppable. You can sign up for his free weekly tips.