It's been another week of gloom in the business press. European airlines facing tough times, questions about the sale of banks and falling profits on the high street. Times are undoubtedly tough. Brand are facing a problem with this growing uncertainty about the economic outlook. A report out this weekend suggests that over two-thirds of British families are reigning in their spending and a similar pattern is being faced across Europe and North America.

In times like this, brands need to work harder to make sure they attract and retain consumer spending. Getting close to and understanding your customers is even more important than ever. You need to ensure that you understand what they want and that you are at the forefront of their mind when making a purchase. Sustainable engagement is critical - more than just a need for good marketing campaigns, brands to to build and maintain sustainable relationships with their customers. And they probably want to do this without spending too much money.

So in the interests of helping brands face the credit crunch and come out the other side, here are five recommendations from the team at FreshNetworks of how you can use social media to help make the most of your opportunities in the current climate and to engage your customers in a sustainable way.

1. Add product reviews to your site

If you have your products listed on your site (whether it's an e-commerce-enabled site or not) you really should have a place for customer reviews. A rating mechanism (scoring the product out of five, for example) would be a good start, but allowing people to write reviews is best. Many firms worry about doing this and doing it openly, but reviews tend to be more positive than not (the typical score given out of five is 4.3) and the presence of reviews (be they positive or not) are reassuring for customers. In fact, a study done by FigLeaves showed that by adding reviews to their site increased conversions to sales by over 30%.

2. Involve customers as soon as possible in your decision making

You can't afford to make a wrong decision, but you might not want to delay getting your new product or process to the market. It's important to involve your customers to make sure that you are going in the right direction and that you are meeting a need that they have. It's often said that the brightest people don't work for you and some of the biggest companies recognise this by working with their customers in online research communities - testing ideas with them in real-time. Checking your plans with them as you are developing them, or watching what customers think, do and say so you can adapt your product for them. In a recent online research community that we ran for a global telecommunications firm, the community let them see the language their customers used to talk about their product and feed this into their marketing and advertising.

3. Reward your customers

Customers want to be passionate about your brand. Whatever it is you sell or do, there will be customers who care about you. You need to reward them. You need to be as passionate back to them. This is where social media can really come to the fore. Letting them be the ‘first to know, first to see, first to do' is a great way to reward them. Create a community and release new product information to the community members first. Let them interact directly with senior staff and enter into an exchange with them (as shown by Gordon Brown in Ask the PM). Making your customers feel like part of the organisation is the best reward they can get. And using social media is the most effective way of letting them feel this.

4. Equip your advocates to amplify word of mouth

Your most passionate advocates should be doing your marketing for you. We know from research from McKinsey and Forrester Research that people are more likely to trust ‘people like me'. If you can equip your advocates with information (such as the early access to new product information proposed above) and maybe let them take it to their own social networks through widgets then you can get them to do your marketing for you. You can amplify the word of mouth by giving them information to talk about and help them spread the word about your product.

5. It's okay to ‘join the conversation' but you need to listen and respond

Whilst there has been a lot of talk of ‘joining the conversation', people often don't say what this means. If you are to truly engage your customers, you need to create a space where you can have an open and frank exchange with them. You can tell them things about your product, your brand, your intentions and developments. You can also listen to them, about their life, their thoughts on your product and the place your product plays in their life. This is a powerful exchange to create and an area where real engagement develops. What will make it a success if feedback. When you listen to your customer make sure you tell them what you think, what you are going to do based on their thoughts, and also why you might not do anything. This two-way feedback is what makes online communities work.

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