5 ways to start conversations online to gain and retain customers


Tasha Cunningham, business columnist and web consultant
Tasha Cunningham, business columnist and web consultant
John VanBeekum / Miami Herald

Special to the Miami Herald

For years, people have been socializing online. Whether it’s on dating sites to find a potential mate or visiting a retail store online in search of the perfect product, consumers spend a considerable amount of time expressing their opinions, making purchases and connecting with others on the Web. In fact, in just one minute in 2013, a whopping $83,000 in purchases were made on Amazon, 1.8 million likes were posted on Facebook, 278,000 tweets were sent on Twitter and 216,000 photos were shared on Instagram, according to Qmee, a site that offers the public cash rewards for searching online. The firm compiled data from PC Mag, Business Insider and other sites to create a composite of what happens online in 60 seconds.

For the small business owner, the flurry of online activity presents a good opportunity to find and retain customers by starting conversations online. Many entrepreneurs are overwhelmed by marketing their businesses online. There are millions of sites to post information, create profiles and share product pictures. Making sense of it all can be tough. But not to worry, free tools combined with sound marketing strategies can make starting and sustaining online conversations easy.

1. Use free social media monitoring tools to listen. One of the most effective ways to track conversations online is by using a monitoring tool. For small business owners, the cost of some monitoring services can be pricy. But there a number of free tools you can use to check out what consumers are saying about any topic, including your brand and that of your competition on the Internet. Check out Cyfe (, SocialMention ( and HootSuite ( to get started.

When looking for conversations using a monitoring tool, be sure to search for a keyword or topic with and without the hashtag (#). This will allow you to track the terms on sites like Twitter and Instagram where hashtags are used often.

2. Take advantage of LinkedIn Mentions. This tool gives you the chance to mention a company or person in an update and then notify them that you’ve talked about them on LinkedIn. It’s simple to use and allows you to connect and start conversations with consumers who may have interest in your product or service.

Here’s how it works: Select someone else’s update you would like to comment on. Click on the “Comment” link and type @. Then start typing a name in the box. A list of potential people or companies you can mention will pop up. Click a name from the list and start typing your message. The person or company mentioned in your message will receive an e-mail alert about the mention.

3. Check out Twitter Conversations. You may have noticed that for a while now, Twitter has been making it easier for people to connect. One of the newest tools is Conversations. It’s essentially a vertical blue line that you’ll see connecting a thread between two or more people. You can select a conversation and then join it by replying to someone in the thread. Your reply will only be seen by your followers and the person you replied to, but it’s a great way to gauge the types of conversations on Twitter that are relevant to your business.

4. Explore Instagram Direct. If your company is using Instagram to market online, you might want to try Instagram Direct, a new feature that allows users to share content with specific people or groups in private conversations. To use it, click on the “Direct” icon in the top corner of your homepage, select a user or group of users to share your content with and you’re done. Once you’ve shared your content, private threads can occur on the image or video, but only the people you’ve shared it with will see it. But Instagram users can also block users from sending you direct content, so make sure what you’re sharing is useful and engaging.

5. Look out for the Facebook Conversations Group. Earlier this month, Facebook announced that it will forming the Facebook Conversations Group, a unit of the company aimed at building products designed to help make it easier for people to converse online. Facebook’s recently acquired team that developed Branch, a social discussion startup backed by the founders of Twitter. The Branch team will lead the group. In the meantime, check out Branch by visiting

For more tools to help you converse with customers online, check out the Herald’s Starting Gate blog.

Tasha Cunningham is a principal in the Cunningham Group, a communications firm with offices in Miami and Orlando.

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