To benefit from social media it’s important to understand your audience and master the art of conversation.

Find out where your customers spend most of their time online, put yourself in front of them—then keep talking to them. Here are five ways to help you reach your customers online and keep them engaged.

1) Plan, but be reactive

Plan your content strategy around local and national events, key dates and holidays so that you can create relevant content to suit (think the Queen's birthday, national celebration or awareness days, bank holidays, etc.). You'll then have time to quickly create additional content on an ad-hoc basis depending on the news agenda (i.e., "reactive" content).

This year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report found that more 18 to 24-year-olds cite social media as their primary news source (28%) than TV (24%). If the latest news is breaking online first, your brand should be there to talk about it. Creating a weekly content calendar can save scrabbling around for ideas at the eleventh hour.

You can schedule and even automate most of your posts, allowing time for reactive content depending on the news. Just don't forget to monitor daily and adjust where necessary to avoid any scheduling mishaps.

2) Build a community

  • Respond to and interact with your customers. Reply to their queries, comments and interactions. If someone tags a friend in a comment, thank them for sharing and keep the conversation going.
  • Reply tactfully to negative posts, with understanding, setting an example to the rest of your customers.
  • Choose conversation over broadcast mode. Ask questions, be friendly, and show the human behind your brand.
  • Bring news or product announcements to life with real-life examples, speaking directly to your audience in a language they'll understand:
     E.g. a sports shop promoting a new line of trainers might share:
    “Where do you run? [Insert brand] are now in stock and we want to know where you'd take them! Show us photos from your last run, and shop the new collection here >"
    ...which is more engaging than: “NEW: [insert brand] are now in stock, get yours here >"
  • Create content on an ad-hoc basis- be consistent and post on a regular basis.

  • Ignore comments, positive or negative.

  • Use too much sales speak.

3) Be relevant—even when you're not

Find ways to align your brand with popular culture, news and local/national events. A local pub might have nothing to do with the nearby annual 10km run, but a tweet and hashtag offering runners a post-race pint for showing their medal can marry the two nicely.

One company that does a good job of staying relevant is Innocent Drinks, the popular UK smoothie and juice maker. The brand voice is fun and informal—like talking to a friend rather than a faceless corporation. During the 2016 UEFA European Championships, Innocent's Twitter feed was full of live commentary for those missing the game, and they bucked the no-hashtag rule on Facebook with this playful post:

The Digital Garage Blog - How to engage your customers on social medial, Innocent Drinks

Another creative example from Innocent Drinks: To promote their "Chain of Good" campaign—Innocent gives 10% of profits to charity. The brand created a compliment generator that churns out witty compliments for friends on social media. The goal is to package the do-good concept in a way that's shareable, interactive and unique.

The Digital Garage Blog - How to engage your customers on social medial, Innocent Drinks

None of these examples directly sell the product, but they engage users with the brand, and can therefore improve brand perception. Innocent's social personality is of course unique and wouldn't work for everyone. The important thing is to find your brand's voice and use it to make content that cuts through the noise.

4) Hashtags—how to use them (and when not to)

Using hashtags on social media brings conversations together and makes campaigns memorable, but it's important to get the platform right.

Some memorable campaigns include Sport England's #ThisGirlCan, Cancer Research's #NoMakeupSelfie (which raised £8m), and the #ALSIceBucketChallenge, which has recently been credited as raising $100m in a 30-day period to fund a breakthrough into research on the disease.

Other ways to use hashtags are for community chats and organised Q&As, such as #UKRunChat hour which runs every Wednesday and Sunday evening on Twitter.

5) Listen and learn—use insights to inform strategy

Everything you do on social is easy to monitor, track and record.

Most social networks have built-in analytics, i.e., Twitter Analytics and Facebook Insights, and there are some good low-price paid platforms like Iconosquare for Instagram.

The Digital Garage Blog - How to engage your customers on social medial (analytics)

Generally, these platforms provide audience demographics, engagement stats, post reach and more. Facebook Insights (see screenshots), for example, provides actionable data, such as when your audience is mostly online and what your competitors are up to. Use this data to inform your social strategy moving forward. Look at the peaks and troughs of when most of your audience is online to share content at optimum times.

The Digital Garage Blog - How to engage your customers on social medial (analytics)

If 80% of your Facebook fans are female, and video posts typically receive more engagement than link posts, you know to create more content for this audience. Additionally, you can set up Google Analytics on your website and create URL tracking links for all social posts to monitor what happens after that all-important click-through.

In summary, there are lots of ways to reach and engage your customers on social, but some of the key takeaways are: hold a conversation, build a community, and plan ahead while leaving room for reactive activity. As long as you're talking to your customers in the right places, at the right time, with the right content, you should be on the right track.

How do you work out which social media sites are the right ones for you? Check out the free lesson available on the Digital Garage.