People buy people. It’s a sales mantra that I’ve seen repeated time and time again. If you think about it, it does make sense. Why would you buy anything from someone you don’t like?

Being ‘liked’ can be easier to achieve in person. As so much of communication is non-verbal, demonstrating positive body language, working on your intonation, and showing off active listening skills can help forge relationships relatively quickly. It’s not as easy online.

So how can you build relationships with your customers and followers on social media? Here’s my advice in tl;dr format, and I’ll expand on each further down:

  • Be human
  • Be available
  • Be honest
  • Be knowledgeable
  • Be proactive
  • Be good

My route into marketing wasn’t particularly straightforward: I did a degree in Journalism, before studying for my PGCE and taking up a position as an A Level Media Studies teacher. This led to a position as a Marketing and Communications Manager for the college I worked at after I approached management with some ideas on how we could attract new students (they’d asked for these as they didn’t have a formal marketing department at the time). I’ve never formally studied for a marketing or business qualification.

As a result, my knowledge of the industry comes from my experience and has been shaped by my own values and beliefs. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work for companies that are – for the most part – aligned with these. I also spend a lot of time with my cynical hat on; I don’t tend to trust a lot of marketing.

This is what led me to create these rules. While they’re not gospel, and won’t work for all organisations, I think they’re a good starting point and they’ve worked for me.

Be human

Ridding yourself of the temptation to constantly speak with your corporate hat on is incredibly difficult to do. Remember people buy people? We don’t like faceless companies, nor do we like brands who position themselves as above their audience.

Being human involves responding to people with natural language, not copying and pasting responses, and generally engaging with those who take the time to contact you. If you wouldn’t ignore an enquiry on the phone or via email, don’t ignore it on social media.

If you wouldn't ignore an enquiry on the phone or via email, don't ignore it on social media. Click To Tweet

Innocent are masters of this. Even when people raise issues with them their responses are personal, funny, and definitely human. Take the exchange below. In the hands of other teams this would probably have resulted in a bland, insincere apology along with an email address to make a complaint to.

There are a few things I like: the use of personalisation, colloquial language (drop, rather than send), a memorable and useful email address (rather than, and a reference to the original complaint (elevenses). It’s fairly low-key as far as complaints go, but it’s a good example of how innocent try to bring their tone of voice to every interaction they have with customers.

Be available

If you want people to engage with you on social media you need to try and be online when they are (as much as possible). Only responding to enquiries within standard working hours is great if that’s when you post, but if you’re going to put content online at all hours of the day then my advice is to have some availability that coincides with your audience’s.

Sprout Social’s 2016 study showed that consumers expect to wait a maximum of four hours for a response. What happens if you take longer than that? Simple. They’ll go elsewhere. If these messages arrive on a Friday evening, not long after you’ve clocked off for the weekend, then they could be waiting up to 60 hours for a response that could make the difference between purchasing and using a competitor.

Be honest

This ties in with being human. If you make a mistake, own it. Chances are if you don’t you’ll just get caught out for it further down the line anyway, so better to be upfront and admit where you’ve gone wrong. That way you’ll avoid a full-blown crisis.

Be knowledgeable

Showing – and telling – people what you know is really what marketing is all about. But it comes with potential pitfalls: go too far and you can look like you’re showing off, don’t do it enough and your customers might not think you know what you’re talking about. A Hubspot report highlighted that 45% of people would unfollow a brand that posts too much self-promotional content, so getting this right is crucial.

Instead, get involved in discussions about your sector or industry. Share stories that your followers care about or will find interesting. Stories that prove you understand their concerns. These can be starting points for further discussion, generating engagement. I’ve written previously about how the 80/20 rule can help with this.

It’s an approach I’ve taken with The Online Rule’s Twitter account: I regularly highlight articles and stories from other websites, as well as sharing what I think are examples of good practice for others to follow and learn from. I’d say it’s been successful as it establishes an informed tone of voice for the account, and the account’s target audience regularly engage with what I post.

Be proactive

One mistake brands make is sitting and waiting for the conversation to come to them. Instead, keep an eye on your timeline and see what people are talking about. Follow influencers and thought leaders, and send some engagement their way.

A simple ‘like’ shows that you’ve been following what they say, and strengthens relationships. Quote tweeting them, or including their comments in a post, demonstrates knowledge and understanding and links to the previous point about highlighting your own expertise.

This can often have the nice side effect of people sharing your comments with their followers, increasing your awareness and bringing people to your profile.

Be good

This is probably my favourite value: just be nice. For example, if someone replies to something you’ve posted online then actually take the time to reply or engage with them. It can be quite disappointing how many brands and companies post regularly on social media but ignore any replies they receive.

It also refers to constantly giving your best for your followers. A lot of consumers see social media as a customer service channel, so expected standards can be quite high. Ensure that everyone is treated equally and fairly, and keep everything upbeat.

Remember the old adage: if you’ve got nothing nice to say then say nothing at all. This rings true on social media too.


As Facebook’s algorithms restrict organic reach, and Twitter gets more and more clogged up with content, having a brand people actually want to engage with is becoming more and more important. In my experience the rules above are a good starting point on the road to increased engagement.