Most companies are using social media because they feel they should. (That's my opinion, anyway.) So how do you use social media to actually engage your customers--and build better customer relationships?

That's a question many businesses are struggling to answer.

Here's another in my series where I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me. (There's a list of some previous installments at the end of this article.)

This time I talked to Justyn Howard, the founder and CEO of Sprout Social, a leading social media management and engagement platform. Sprout just launched BePresent, a free social media engagement report that lets you compare your response rate and response time against industry benchmarks. (I was at the 0th percentile. Go figure.)

Let's start with me. The only time I use Twitter is to let readers know there's a new post. Clearly that's not ideal. (Even though I do say that in my profile.)
Different people and different companies have different strategies for social media.

The first thing you, and everyone else, should explore is whether your current social strategy would be more valuable if it was different. What most companies are missing is nuanced feedback.

Take Yelp: Yelp primarily provides feedback from customers who are very happy or very upset. That's certainly valuable, but when you capture nuanced feedback from social media you move past binary feedback. The people in the middle are deciding whether to keep on doing business with you. The people in the middle will pay you money on a consistent basis, and social media gives you access to them.

The right social media strategy will help you listen to all those people in the middle--and not only respond to them so you address their concerns but also make smart changes to your business.

But then you're into ROI, and it's hard to calculate ROI on social media.
Forget return on investment for a second and see social media as a different form of communication. Would you stop answering or returning phone calls? No.

Social media is just a different form of communication that many customers have adopted as their primary means of communication. So when you don't listen and don't respond you lose those customers. They think you don't care.

Maybe you'll learn about something you should address immediately. Maybe you'll spark a bigger backlash among their connections if you don't respond to a tweet.

So that's why you're talking about engagement.
Exactly. Social media is based on conversations. It's important for people to realize that social media is also a great consumer sentiment measurement channel and marketing channel but it will only be effective for as long as consumers allow it to be.

The quid pro quo of having access to this amazing channel is that when I need help, it may be easier for me to pull out my phone and tweet. So when I need something, you need to be there for me.

Ultimately consumers own your ability to market to them through those channels. They can stop talking, stop caring, stop buying, etc.

To create and maintain a real relationship you have to be just as present on social media as you would be on the phone.

So pretend I'm the average business. Give me some tips on better engaging my customers and effectively using social media as a channel for conversations.
Keep in mind we are not a social media monitoring or marketing company; what we do is help people manage social media as a communication channel. We add the layer that helps people do things efficiently.

So with that in mind:

1. Be responsive.

That's one of the things BePresent measures. A bad response is better than no response. That's something a lot of people have to get over; in many cases they're afraid because they don't want to say something dumb but a bad response is better than response, within reason. Being responsive is first and foremost.

2. But you get to define "responsive."

There is no hard and fast rule about what "responsive" means. For us, we feel anyone who has taken the time to talk about us in a public forum deserves a response. If they're willing to share something about us, we'll reply.
Other people only respond to urgent issues. It all depends on your goals and what you can reasonably do.

Whether it's once a day or all day long, have someone in place who will respond, because crickets are the worst thing for your social profile.

3. Establish a goal, broadcast that goal, and follow through on it.

Maybe you want to respond to customer issues. Maybe you hope to turn detractors into supporters. Maybe you want to use social to cut down on inbound calls. Surely you have goals and expectations for how employees will handle phone calls or emails--do the same thing with your social media channels.

You can't do better until you know what you want to do better.

4. Get other functions involved.

Traditionally the marketing departments have had a stranglehold on customer communications, especially social communications. If there are other stakeholders, get them involved. Figure out the best people to engage in certain conversations--often that's not your marketing department.

5. Empower the people behind the keyboard.

Don't say, "Please call our 800 number." Don't turn social into a glorified answering service.  Set some guidelines, create some processes and decision trees, and give the employees having social conversations the power to actually help your customers.

6. Embrace the opportunity to be different.

Most consumers don't expect anything to happen when they use social media to communicate with companies. They don't expect it to but they want it to.

It is not up to you to determine what method of communication your customers will use. It's no longer your choice. Your customers are in the channels they're in and you need to be there with them.

Embrace that. Be responsive, answer their questions, and solve their problems. Then you can create a real competitive advantage that most companies are ignoring. Get there now, because if you wait too long it will be too late.