Columbo’s 9 Rules of Social Media Engagement

by Rick Ellis*, Director of Business Development at AIS Media, Inc., ( an award winning creative digital and social media engagement agency. Thomas Harpointner**, AIS Media CEO, contributed to this article.

Much is written today about the importance of engagement in social media. In simple terms, engagement means developing relationships, sustaining them, and then then creating an environment where people feel they trust you enough to want to openly share information.

The late Peter Falk’s Emmy award winning character, Lt. Columbo, would have made a modern day social media master. Although the first episode premiered in 1971, long before the Internet and social media were on the scene, he was certainly the master of engagement. He recognized the value of engaging and listening. His unassuming style and commitment to precise details allowed him to communicate and effectively gather information that caught culprits and viewers by surprise.

I’ve always been a Columbo junkie. It’s the only television show that I’ve seen every episode repeatedly. I imagine if Columbo had been a social media marketer, his script for social media success would include the following eight rules – plus a surprise ending.  

Columbo Rule #1: Listen first

When Columbo entered a crime scene, he remained in the fringe seemingly disinterested. He looked at the newspaper on the coffee table, borrowed matches for his ever present cigar and fumbled for his pencil all while actually actively listening and taking notes. Only after conversations and facts had begun to unfold, would he join in with his own questions and comments.

Listening is also key to developing a successful social media marketing strategy. If you pay close attention to conversations, customers will tell you what they want and you’ll uncover new opportunities.

Columbo Rule #2: Pay attention to details

A keen attention to detail was Columbo’s strong point. He would ask questions about the minutest details – sometimes over and over until he understood. Columbo claimed to be compulsive and he would often apologetically shake his head and say “I’m just trying to make this add up.” He easily drew others into conversations by asking questions – lots of them. His interview technique was seemingly inept and disjointed followed with his inevitable afterthought “ahhh… there’s just one more thing.” In the end, it was these questions and his relentless attention to detail that would prove to be the undoing of the suspect.

Effective social media marketing requires routinely reviewing analytics and measuring performance. Identify what tactics are delivering results, which need improvement and be prepared to make adjustments along the way.

Columbo Rule #3: Ask questions and provide a forum to elaborate

Lt. Columbo was brilliant with use of softening statements when approaching the culprit. “I’m terribly sorry to disturb you” was a frequent Columbo opening statement. He had others as well:

  • “as long as I’m here I may as well ask you…”
  • “what’s bothering me is…”
  • “the boys back in the lab…”
  • “I just want to tie up a few loose ends”
  • “I just want to show you something, it won’t take too much of your time…”

Regardless of the outcome of each conversation, the Lieutenant remained composed and respectful of the time spent with those involved in the investigation.

In social media marketing, it’s also more important to know which questions to ask than to have all the answers. Know what topics drive conversation among your audience. Serve as a facilitator and encourage interactions. Use the insight you gain to spark new discussions and encourage people to share details.

Columbo Rule #4: Be genuine

Lt. Columbo created a simple persona. He was an everyday man. People could relate to him. He had allergies, was afraid of heights and got seasick easily. His favorite food was chili with crackers. For variety, it was chili with beans one day; without the next. He and “the wife” and their Basset hound named “Dog” lived simply. Often his 1950’s Peugeot wouldn’t start. He had money concerns just as everyone else. In one episode he was asked, “Lieutenant, are you working undercover?” His reply: “No, underpaid.” His openness humanized him; he carried no airs. Columbo was authentic.

Social networks like Facebook and Twitter enable you to let your company’s or brand’s personality shine through. Show some emotion to let your audience know that real people are communicating, not robots. A little sense of humor can go a long way. Laughter is contagious – even online. If you can get your audience to loosen up a little and smile, you’re also more likely to gain their business.

Columbo Rule #5: Always be humble and polite

Lt. Columbo always addressed folks as sir or ma’am; said “excuse me for bothering you”; and endured insults with a smile. The lieutenant didn’t put people on the defensive and generally made himself the object of jokes with comments like “my wife said I’m the second best man – eighty guys tied for first”. He didn’t use police jargon or rhetoric. Nor did he lecture or speak down to those he spoke with; he simply shared information. He was always underestimated, patronized and dismissed by those he encountered – especially by the culprit, one of whom told the lieutenant “you’re almost likeable in a shabby sort of way.” Columbo’s communication style focused on simple terms and content.

Social media is a great channel to engage in dialogue with prospective and existing customers. That said, it’s important to recognize that even the best companies and brands cannot make 100% of their customers 100% happy 100% of the time. While you may not be able to prevent a customer from complaining, ultimately how you respond will influence the opinions of other customers.

Columbo Rule #6: Engage everyone

Lt. Columbo had a special talent for nurturing relationships. He took great interest in the activities of others. He asked questions and expressed amazement when he learned something new. Often seemingly perfect cases were solved by information gleaned from sideline conversations he would have with the gardener, secretary, mechanic or someone with whom he had casually engaged in conversation.

In social media, virtually everyone you engage is connected with others. The average Facebook user has 130 friends. High Facebook users have hundreds of friends. When you engage a user consider that your interactions may be seen by and shared with hundreds, potentially thousands of people.

Columbo Rule #7: Be a master storyteller

Lt. Columbo engaged others in conversation with stories about everyday people and events that he masterfully wove into conversations. Whether sharing a story about a favorite niece or his wife, the content within his stories served a purpose in leading his investigation to a culmination.

Social media offers an excellent channel for sharing stories; customer testimonials, case studies, research, etc. Share the story behind your products and/or services and how customers have benefitted. But don’t just tell. Instead, encourage your audience to share their own stories and highlight them. Empower your customers to become advocates.

Columbo Rule #8: Use visuals

Finally, the lieutenant was a visual man. He was famous for staging murder scenes where he would return and have the events reenacted. He used props. Timing was set and attention to the visual details was tended to precisely. Rather than try to explain how the murder was solved, he would allow the visual drama to play out and allow the culprit as well as the viewer to realize exactly how the events unfolded. The visual image was often quite stunning and dramatic when the culprits realize they had been undone.

Use eye candy. Use visuals. Social media offers an excellent platform to share pictures, illustrations, audio and video. Give your audience stuff they’ll want to share.

“Ahhh – there’s just one more thing.”

Columbo Rule #9: Put the spotlight on your audience

Throughout the series, Lt. Columbo shared the scenes with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Although Columbo was the namesake of the show, in each episode he remained in the limelight’s shadows allowing the guests to be the stars. It was part of the magic of Columbo; he openly shared his stage with others. Effective social media marketing puts your fans and followers in the spotlight and lets them be the stars.


*Rick Ellis
When not watching Columbo re-runs, Rick Ellis, who has an MBA in e-Business, is AIS Media’s Director of Business Development. AIS Media is an award winning Atlanta-based digital and social media engagement agency. AIS Media’s clients include leading companies, governments and Fortune 500 corporations.

**Thomas Harpointner
Thomas Harpointner is founder and CEO of AIS Media, Inc. Thomas sets AIS Media’s strategic direction and enjoys being actively engaged with key client accounts. Thomas is recognized as a digital and social media marketing thought-leader, strategist, author and speaker.

AIS Media is an Atlanta, GA based award-winning digital engagement agency known for connecting companies, organizations and brands with their target customers through performance-driven creative integrated digital and social media marketing. For more, visit: | |

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