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A guest post by Sherry Orel of Brand Connections.

It’s a word that gets flung around a lot in our business: authenticity. Mostly, authentic is used by social media pros to mean “transparent.”

It’s true that a consumer can gain a brand’s trust online when they think they’re speaking to a real person. But making an authentic connection between brand and consumer takes more than a community manager on a brand’s Facebook page asking fans what they had for breakfast that day. For consumers to authentically connect with a brand, they must feel as if they are engaging with the brand on their terms.

Here are four ways for brands to authentically engage with their consumers, offline and on.

1. Offer them a genuine experience with your brand that’s out of the ordinary, funny or surprising, and yet makes perfect sense given where they are in their lives at that moment. Strategic and offbeat pop-up events tied to online activation are great for this. Young women attending Natasha Bedingfield concerts this summer stopped for a bite at Freschetta Simply … Inspired branded food trucks. They then went online to share their excitement about the brand; Freschetta earned more than 2,000 hits on its social media sites. A mobile phone company scored when its exclusive series of inflight programming featured travel tips for smartphone users. The messaging was unexpected and useful (take a photo of everything in your wallet in case you lose it, for example), and it was delivered when consumers had time to act on the advice.

2. Reach them when they least expect it. A company that paints an entire house with an advertisement recently received press attention. Whether this is effective is doubtful. Advertising in unexpected places works, as long as the messages are highly relevant to consumers at that very instant. This year, some ski slopes featured ads on chair lift maps located on the safety bars. The ads, for juice and energy bars, delivered just the right message at the right time to the active audience. A few airlines use CareCovers, an antimicrobial tray table cover that features an informative ad and user polls indicate that fliers like receiving content and information this way.

3. Read their mind. Understanding your customer's frame of mind when sending a message helps advertisers be more relevant and creative, especially when that message is being delivered at their point-of-need. For example, 40% of travelers forget to pack toiletries. Why not consider giving away products that hotels don’t typically provide and that travelers want and need? Then, don’t stop the conversation. Place a QR code on the sample insert that leads travelers to the brands’ social channels. Here, you can encourage these "rescued" (and likely grateful) travelers to comment on their experience right away. Make sure your community manager is armed to quickly reply to the feedback.

4. Make it incredibly easy for your passionate consumers to do the engaging. Sampling and advertising aren’t enough today. Consumers expect to be able to say something about the brands they love online, so brands must enable and encourage fans to be the experts. The best way to do this is to use an online platform designed for sharing opinions about brands (beyond Yelp!) that prompts brand fans for comments or guides them with questions about their experience. After they received special samples, a group of cold-sufferers chatted up a popular cold remedy, sparking more than 5 million conversations in social media, increasing share of voice by 14% over the competition during the campaign.

Of course, your community manager can and should prompt relevant conversation on your brand’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Daily engagement can give brands a seat at their customers' tables. But, tying a promotion to a customized platform that encourages consumers to dig a little more deeply into their experience with the brand can be much more effective in spreading richer messaging. The best part is that the prompts allow your consumers to spread the words they want to spread.

Authentically engaging with consumers means being relevant and in tune with their frame of mind. This insight enables brands to deliver messages, experiences, samples and coupons organically that are memorable and conversation-worthy. Making the best use of these tactics engenders engagement that sticks. And brands build equity and turn fans into ambassadors because, to these fans, the brands feel authentic.

Sherry Orel is the chief executive officer of Brand Connections.

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