Photo by @whiskerwoven

Social media has always been a terrific platform for brands to engage with their community. And with COVID-19, many businesses have doubled down on their social initiatives to maintain strong customer relationships.

When you have a limited ability to sell (i.e., because of lockdowns and social distancing), you need to find ways to continuously engage with customers. Platforms like Instagram and Facebook, can help you accomplish that… but only if you do it right.

Social networks are crowded. In order to truly connect with your audience — and earn their business beyond the pandemic — you need to establish trust and cultivate more intimate relationships with your current and future customers.

And that’s exactly what our special guest, Christine Guillot, is here to talk about. Chris is the founder of Merchant Method, and she's a purpose-driven retail consultant who helps independent merchants and creators be more profitable.

We recently caught up Chris and talked about:

  • what many small businesses are struggling with because of COVID-19;
  • why (and how) merchants should shift their social media strategy to connect with customers and win their business; and
  • how to stay on top of your online initiatives without getting overwhelmed.

Let’s hear what she has to say!

What many merchants are struggling with amidst the pandemic (and what you could be doing wrong)

According to Chris, one of the top things that she's seen small businesses grapple with during the pandemic is recreating personal customer interactions online. This is particularly true for businesses that hold events or run physical stores.

“Probably the biggest struggle that I've seen for retailers and creators is replicating an experience that they have with customers in person, and taking it online. We so quickly try to bring one experience into another channel,” she says.

This approach, though, doesn’t always work.

Chris adds that many businesses see social media as a vehicle for growing their presence and acquiring new customers, when it should really be about trust and intimacy. And doing that requires more than just publishing promotional content.

“In order for retailers and creators to really reestablish their ability to be profitable, we need to be more emotionally intelligent,” adds Chris.

How to build trust and re-establish personal connections online

Chris urges retailers to reframe how they use social media.

“Rather than using social as a one-way [street], what I would love to see more of and where I see small businesses gaining their foothold is by actually having conversations and talking through type. [This can be done by] asking the kinds of questions you would ask if someone was with you in a shared space,” she explains.

Chris’ advice? Start in the comments section..

“Honestly, it doesn't matter how many likes a post gets or how many comments. It doesn't even matter what the mathematical engagement rate is. As soon as someone hops into the comments, that's when the real conversation starts.”

She continues, “it's very difficult for a small business to recreate the overwhelming emotional experience that happens in a physical space with a roof, walls, sounds, and common experiences. It's very difficult to do that online.”

But, Chris says that it’s a challenge that every merchant should take on. It’s important to give your customers some love whenever they comment or engage with your content. Because that’s what’s going to keep them coming back.

“The customers that are going to stay with us through the fall and into the holidays are the ones that we make feel special and feel like we've noticed them and that we're paying attention to them. And that comes in the comments.”

So, the next time someone comments on your post — even it’s just a one-word remark or an emoji, take the time to interact with them.

One tip that Chris offers is asking yourself, "How can I respond back in the same way I might respond in person?"

Make small talk in the comments, she adds. That’s where the magic is.

Merchants that are doing it right

When asked about merchants that are doing an amazing job at community engagement, one of the first brands that popped into her mind is Liberate & Lather, a business that sells soaps, lotions, and candles.

“She's really good at the back and forth conversation and engagement,” says Chris.

In a recent post, for instance, we see her actively conversing with one commenter about their shared love of books.

Compliments 'N Coffee, which sells mugs with positive affirmations on them, is another one that Chris loves. Ashleigh, the woman behind the brand, is also doing an terrific job at conversing with her community.

In the post below, we someone commenting on how much she loves the mug in the photo, and Ashleigh is quick to reply and mention that it’ll be in stock soon.

On managing your time and priorities

Establishing trust and connection takes time and consistent effort. As a business owner, you may not always have the luxury of spending hours on social media. According to Chris, one of the best ways to handle things is to start small.

“I always recommend starting with putting out what you can manage to return. So that could mean not asking 50 engaging questions and then can only respond to 10 of them.”

You should be realistic with your plans and expectations, and factor in the time it takes to learn a new skill or process. "We forget that there's so much learning on the path to reaching our goals. And we often don't plan for our own learning curve,” she says.

Will your plan take longer? Sure.

“But when we acknowledge and plan for a learning curve, we're much more likely to be able to manage our time better and reach our goal."

Now is the time to strengthen your customer relationships

We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s a weird time for everyone. But if you use this period wisely and find ways to more deeply connect with your audience on social, you — and your customers — will come out much better on the other side.

Hopefully, Chris’ insights help you do just that!