More than a third of UK consumers (36%) have engaged with brands through social media, according to a survey from Fishburn Hedges.

This has doubled from 19% since August 2011 and equates to around 18m people.

The increased interaction appears to be driven by the widespread belief among respondents (40%) that social media improves customer service, compared to only 7% who feared it would harm service.

In fact 68% of those who have engaged with brands through social media believe that it “allowed them to find their voice.”

More than two-thirds (65%) also believe that it is a better way to communicate with companies than call centres.

And it isn’t a trend that is limited to younger generations.

More than a quarter of the 55+ age group had dealt with a brand on social media, rising to 49% of 18-24 year olds.

But while consumers may increasingly expect customer service through social media channels, it is difficult for brands to respond in the correct way.

For example, should brands respond to all tweets and Facebook posts, and how much resource should be committed to it?

In March we put together a social customer service best practice checklist, and blogged eight things to consider before you start.

Fishburn Hedges’ report also includes six basic guidelines for social media customer service:

  • Don’t be paralysed by uncertainty: where call centres arguably erect barriers between brands and customers, social media can remove them and bring proximity. It shouldn’t be a psychological straitjacket, so dive in – but clearly define your strategy first.
  • Don’t let social media define you: your brand must define it. It must be a continuation of a brand using the appropriate channels and not a knee-jerk reaction to following how others are using it.
  • Make more of the emotional insight you have: customer data offers insight into behaviour, but social media takes that to a different level, enabling brands to tap into emotions.
  • Pick your battles – but enter them fast: speed is critical in the real-time world of social media, but brands should not feel the pressure to answer every query put to them.
  • Address structural barriers in the business, not headcount: there are many ways to resource social, and new hires are not always necessary. Try sharing expertise and removing structural barriers first.
  • Fear not the #fail: No one is perfect and sometimes, just sometimes, it is simply a flash in the pan.