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updated 2/22/2011 4:17:47 AM ET 2011-02-22T09:17:47

Consumers want more than content online -- they want to make a human connection. This means it's no longer enough to push information out to your audience. Today's geo-located, email checking, text messaging, status updating, smartphone toting “social consumers” are ready to engage with their favorite businesses and nonprofits.

The question is: Are you ready to engage with them? It goes beyond providing a positive shopping experience, excellent customer service and content that informs, entertains and makes their lives better. Customers want to know you care about them as well as their business.

In other words, they want to make a connection. The challenge to grow a business goes beyond finding new prospects. It’s about how to engage them. As marketers and business people, everything we do -- online and offline -- comes down to making these meaningful connections with our customers.

While consumers generally are showing a desire to engage with businesses online, in a world where everyone is bombarded by marketing messages wherever they go, consumers become more discerning about which businesses deserve their time, attention and patronage. So how can you engage the busy social consumer and make that important human connection?

Make a Two-Way Connection
Everybody has an opinion. And most everybody likes to share their opinion with others, including businesses. Here are three ways to get an engaging conversation with your customers started:

Post a survey, poll or open-ended question on Facebook asking customers to identify their biggest challenge or most pressing concern related to your business or cause in 2011. Report back to your audience on the results. If anything unexpected, insightful, trend-spotting or controversial bubbles up, use those ideas to spur other conversations.

Send out a thought-provoking question related to your industry on Twitter. Make it something people care about -- an interesting trend, results of study, a surprising report or something in the news. Link back to more info on your website, blog or Facebook page. Use a Twitter hashtag, which mark keywords or topics in tweets, to keep track of the conversation.

Weave the results of your social conversations with customers into your content, across media channels. Good conversations seed good content, and vice versa. Write about things that people will want to talk about and share on their social networks.

Social consumers want to engage and interact with businesses in two-way conversation. Be sure that once you start a discussion, you're present to monitor and participate in it. When a topic catches fire and gets people gabbing, jump in and fan the flames to keep the chatter going. 

Of course, some efforts to engage consumers will be more successful than others. It's about finding what resonates with and engages your audience, and that's not always going to be predictable. So, do some experimenting to determine what sticks. What you share and how you share it is up to you. 

Copyright © 2013 Entrepreneur.com, Inc.

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