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Social media and customer service go hand-in-hand these days. We know consumers are likely to turn to social media to ask brands questions, complain, praise or to just say hi.

Though brands are more active on social media than ever before, they still struggle to engage with customers. To help us better understand how brands are connecting on social, we consulted the Sprout Social Index. It looks at channel growth, brand responsiveness and consumer behavior across more than 160 million inbound messages on 20,000 brand profiles and fan pages.

Measuring Consumer and Brand Engagement

The Index includes two parts: a Consumer Engagement Index that outlines the industries that are currently receiving the most inbound messages requiring attention; and a Brand Engagement Index, which summarizes industries which are the most timely and responsive to those messages.

Overall, the Index shows a 175% increase in messages sent to brands on Twitter  and Facebook that require a response or attention. That means, in the last year alone, the number of people turning to social channels to purposefully engage with brands has grown exponentially. Who is handling the onslaught the best?

It might be surprising to learn that the utilities industry tops the list of companies with most inbound engagement in social channels relative to audience size, but anyone who ever struggled to get a hold of their cable or internet providers knows better. Real estate, consumer goods, banking and finance, and education round out the top five. 

So do those companies with the most inbound engagement serve up the most outbound engagement? Actually, yes. Utilities and banking and finance tied for first for being most responsive to inbound messages from their audience in social channels. Automotive, retail, technology and business services were among the top five. 

Curious as to which industries were the least responsive? Government, real estate and entertainment companies were the least likely to respond to customer inquiries. 

What About Response Rates and Times?

Being responsive on social media is great, provided it's within the context of the question that was asked, and it's done within a timely manner. The report also looked at brand response rates and times and found that average brand response rates decreased and response times increased in the past year from an average of 10.9 hours to 11.3 hours. 

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Overall, business services, utilities, banking and finance had the fastest response times -- responding in approximate 9.5 hours, with banking and utilities having the highest response rates. Government took the longest to respond, doing so in 14.5 hours, while once again, the entertainment industry has the lowest response rate of just 11 percent. 

Sprout Social calls the increased response times discouraging, and while being timely in one's response is important, I think it's important to keep response times in context. I know that as a community manager, sometimes tough questions are asked. Questions that don't already have a response. To answer the question accurately, it takes some time to get the right people in the same room.

While answers shouldn't take too long to answer, but it's also okay to let the consumer know that the organization is looking into it and they'll have an answer shortly. I also wonder if increased response times speak to the number of brands who follow up offline. In these cases, it's important to let the greater community know that the company has fulfilled the request through other means, so others don't think that the issue hasn't been resolved. 

Yes, the consumer has high expectations for brands, but it's essential that brands not only work to answer questions in a timely manner, but they have a strategy in place for doing so. Not every company works the same way. A government official may need to have their comment cleared before posting, while others may be free to post without review. Companies need to make it clear to consumers want they can expect. This isn't an excuse to take your time, but it is a way for you to be transparent about the engagement process. 

Brand Engagement Best Practices

When it comes to the type of network on which consumer choose to engage with brands, the Index only looked at Twitter and Facebook. However, it did show that characteristics of each network suit certain industries better than others. For example, automotive company customers overwhelmingly choose Facebook over Twitter to engage, while Twitter is the preferred platform to engage with government officials and entertainment companies. 

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What does this all mean? In addition to highlighting consumer and brand engagement rates on social media, the Index also served up some interesting data that showed the days of acquiring a million Facebook fans are behind us. According to the research, the average audience size on Facebook is typically larger as the network is more established, but it doesn’t equate to higher engagement in a "predictable fashion." The report suggests that this is because: 

...more “non-follower” engagement happens on Twitter than on Facebook — for example someone may tweet a brand without following that account (i.e. subscribing to their status updates). Facebook also did not provide a streamlined way to get help from a brand until the introduction of (optional) private messages in 2011."

Additionally, the more fans you have, the lower the response rate. If customer experience and multichannel engagement matter to you, perhaps you should focus more on engaging the audience you have, rather than spending time growing the audience. As it turns out, the more engaging and helpful you are, the more likely those being helped will grow your community for you.