True story: there are currently 60 shipping containers full of cookbooks sitting at the bottom of the ocean. A few months ago, a paper shortage led to some popular cookbooks being counterfeited and sold online through third-party sellers. Needless to say, cookbook sellers, authors, and customers are having a tough day. I know: I am one of those customers, and just before the 2021 holiday season, I unknowingly ordered one of these counterfeit cookbooks thinking it was the real thing. The book I thought I was ordering was from one of my favorite Instagram bakers, Kristina Cho. But when my book arrived, it looked “off”—haphazard margins, flat matte pages, and shoddy binding. The very next day, I found a long note from Cho on her Instagram encouraging anyone who’d received a counterfeit copy of her book to DM her directly. I did, and Cho took my info one-on-one, apologized profusely—even though none of this was her fault!—and a few weeks later, when they were back in stock, a brand-new, beautiful copy of her book arrived straight to my doorstep, at no additional cost to me. I’ve made nearly a dozen of her incredible recipes since. This personal, hands-on approach to social media can apply to small businesses of all sizes and sectors. Whether you’re looking to reach new audiences, solve sticky problems, interact with online reviews, or publicize promotions, social media is a powerful tool for customer engagement. Ready to begin engaging smartly on social media on behalf of your small business? Here’s why you should—ASAP—alongside a few of our best-practice recommendations for doing so. The Power of Social Media for Small Businesses and Customers What makes social media such a powerful force for customer engagement? First, its diversity of channels makes social customizable to reach your business’s particular audience. Think of the platforms that your customers most often use: are you a cottage bakery whose beautiful breadmaking process could captivate in an Instagram Reel? Or maybe your B2B offerings are best marketed to other potential business-clients on LinkedIn? Focus first and foremost on the platforms where your current and future customers spend their time. (If you’re reading this and thinking wait, how do I start a social media presence for my business in the first place?, or even what’s an Instagram Reel?, never fear: we have a guide for you.) Engaging smartly on social media with customers is important for a few key reasons: It makes customers feel heard and special.It gives you the tools to build relationships in accessible online spaces.It reinforces your branding through the media of your choosing: blogs, photo, video, and beyond.It can help to avert or de-escalate a nightmare situation (like, say, a sunk shipping container) that could arise for any small business. The next step after having your platforms up and running is the “smartly” part of the equation: how should you use social media to foster positive customer relationships—and, as a result, growth—for your small business? Here are some tips for navigating the best of customer-engagement times, the worst of times, and everything in between. Responding Smartly to Your Customers Via Social Media Not all customer engagement on social media is smart engagement. We’ve all seen examples of social-media business fails (and here are some recent ones, for reverse-motivation). As you navigate the tricky world of online customer engagement, here are some possible social-media engagement tactics to keep in mind, to deal with the good, the bad, and the ugly: Tactic #1: Actively Encourage Positive Reviews, Engagements, and Recommendations Do: develop authentic content that’s specific to your small business—no stock photos or boilerplate blog posts. This could mean investing in professional photography or web design to capture your specific business offerings, but the engagement in the long run could pay off exponentially. Also, proactively ask clients to leave online reviews, and take the time to respond to every single review—good or bad (more on that below). It's the smartest way to manage your online reputation, particularly your search results. Small businesses don’t operate in a vacuum—often, collaboration and teamwork help all involved parties to grow. Social media is no different, so another key tip is to use social media as a business development tool. Engage with your peer small businesses—maybe you’re in the same neighborhood, or sell similar products—with genuine comments on their content to build relationships. Hopefully they’ll return the favor on your channels. Don’t: promise monetary rewards or discounts for positive engagement on your social channels. While it’s okay—great, actually!—to ask a happy customer to spread the word or post online about your business, offering payment or in-kind services for those reviews or posts without being transparent about it could erode trust in your online presence, especially if word spreads that you’ve “bought” your goodwill. Tactic #2: Respond With Concern to Complaints, Challenges, and Negative Reviews Do: engage with social-media complaints or negative reviews that feel genuine and are traceable back to a customer (no bots or spam). Sometimes, social media can double as a customer-service helpline—it can be the fastest way for customers to find you, and these days, it’s a well-known way to get a business’s attention. Social media can double as a customer-service helpline—it can be the fastest way for customers to find you and get your attention. If an unhappy customer posts a photo of a crooked bang trim or a burned sandwich, reach out to them to make it right and own the mistake. Others will see your thoughtful reply on their content—and hopefully you’ll both change this customer’s perception and find some new ones through your response. If a large-scale concern, like a shipping delay or supply-chain issue, is plaguing your business, social media can also be a fast and effective way to spread the word to all affected folks—even if they don’t know there’s a problem yet, like some of my fellow co-cookbook orderers. Don’t: write a long or overly defensive response to a negative review, even if you believe it to be incorrect. Write a brief professional response, address any untrue or exaggerated statements if necessary, and then provide contact information to resolve the issue one-on-one—if possible—via email or phone. This could also be a great chance to fix their problem with an offer and hopefully keep them as a customer. Tactic #3: Wrangle the Customers, Trolls, and Passers-by Gone Wild The pandemic’s onset has sunk bad customer behavior to new depths—and while you won’t have to worry about in-person concerns like physical assault or COVID-protocol violations in digital spaces like social media, the internet is unfortunately not exempt from verbal abuse, harassment, or inappropriate behavior. How should you respond if someone turns your platform into an off-topic, inappropriate, or even dangerous space? Do: ensure your communication and reaction reflects your business's value. Just like in the real world, your social media spaces should reflect your values as a company: so if you wouldn’t tolerate abuse in your store or office, you shouldn’t online. Thankfully, platforms usually have tools to report spam or abuse—don’t hesitate to utilize them. And if the harassment turns systemic, as recently happened to a restaurant in Chicago, reach out to authorities. Don't: lose your cool. Be courteous, polite, and reasonable, and avoid engaging in an online argument or fight, but also know when to walk away. Your goal: stay classy (whether or not you're in San Diego). Using Social Media To Build A Real Communities in Online Spaces Whether you’re solving a crisis or bolstering your customer base, engaging smartly on social media is a proven long-term strategy for growing your business. I’ve found some of my favorite local small businesses through online reviews, and I’ve stayed their customer through watching their services, menus, or products evolve on Instagram. Disclaimer: The information provided in this post does not, and is not intended to, constitute business, legal, tax, or accounting advice and is provided for general informational purposes only. Readers should contact their attorney, business advisor, or tax advisor to obtain advice on any particular matter.