Social media encompasses Internet-based and mobile applications used for sharing and discussing information such as blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, forums and social networking Web sites like Xing, LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter and Facebook. In addition to personal use, online platforms are used to market goods or services and network professionally. As the demand for social media options rise, businesses need to track consumers' online behaviors and leverage social marketing tools to reach their desired audiences. Here are four steps to get started:

Keep Track of Industry Blogs, Forums and Online Communities

First, find out what online content exists in the industry and among business partners and competitors. In addition to using search engines like Google, scan social networking sites that may not appear in the first few pages of a general Web search. Sign up for RSS (really simply syndication) feeds to continually monitor content on popular sites, news outlets and blogs that are updated regularly. An RSS feed alerts users to new posts through a feed reader or via e-mail.

Create Social Media Profiles

Establish an online presence by creating social media profiles, especially on sites that have an industry following. Popular places to create social media profiles include: Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Xing (strictly professional), Twitter (microblogging, or a series of very short blog posts) and Flickr (photos). YouTube is also a highly popular site to post promotional videos and commercials.

Identify Social Media Opportunities and Add to the Conversation

After investigating the state of social media in a specific industry, decide which social media platforms would be the most lucrative. This should include a mix of established social media as well as potential opportunities to carve a new niche in the online world. Issues to research:

  • Which social media outlets are the most popular? Why?
  • Which social media sites does the company’s audience currently visit?
  • Where do they post profiles?
  • Who operates the most popular industry blogs?
  • Which competitors have an online presence?
  • What questions are consumers posting about the industry?
  • Are social media users already discussing the company? In what manners?

Add to conversations that exist and create new conversations to fill holes in coverage. If a particular blog or forum receives a significant amount of traffic, contribute to the conversation by commenting on posts and answering questions. To evaluate traffic of a specific site, enter the domain into a Web information site such as Alexa.

Companies can achieve greater influence by developing original blogs or creating groups on social networking sites that provide for online followings.

Whether adding to an existing conversation or creating a new one, it’s especially important for users to remain transparent. This means all users should state which company they represent and identify potential biases or sponsors.

Set Social Media Priorities

The crux of the matter is that not all sites have the same value. It is definitely important to pay attention to the messages that are being posted about a product, service or offering, but the reality is that some sites don't have the readership to warrant an extensive investment of time. When creating a social media strategy, the first thing to do is to determine which sites have the most value to your target audience. Readership is everything, but there's more to consider. Some crucial questions to consider include: What is the size of the potential audience? Is it a niche market or mass market product? Are there any outspoken personalities that should be courted?

The key is to figure out which sites matter and separate those from the sites that have little to no significance on a successful social media strategy.

Be Realistic

If your primary objective of a social media strategy is direct sales, stop now. Social media strategies are all about engaging the target audience in a dialogue that connects them to the business. Seeding the posts with news about company announcements and activities is acceptable, but the rules of engagement dictate that the information be presented in a way that illustrates the benefit to the reader:

  • Provide links to 3rd party resources.
  • Share testimonials.
  • Offer pre-release announcements.
  • Post support links.
  • Provide information about special offers.

Always remember that the purpose of social media is to engage in dialogue. Therefore, post information that does not drive sales or risk being relegated to the bins saved for Sunday circulars.

Make a Commitment to Social Media

Like any public relations or marketing campaign, social media campaigns require commitment. One of the most effective ways to develop an online audience is through regular contributions to online conversations. Consistency is the key to success in social networking. Once the commitment has been made to any social media network, updates should be made on a consistent basis.

A large, established online audience takes time to create, and regular online postings increase the likelihood that followers will share information and come back for more.

Also, there is a perception among online readers that the more places a person's content appears, the more prominence the spokesperson has. Therefore, be connected. After all, this is the purpose of social networking. Comment on industry trends, share insights and provide links to others with a unique, valuable perspective. Deliver carefully considered analysis to position the company as a thought leader and build credibility for the organization.

Remember that success in social media is dependent primarily on the ability of the spokesperson to remain consistent in posting and messaging and market that message with unyielding persistence. Prioritize the message, set reasonable goals, connect with customers and prospects by offering them a high-value message.

Social marketing and networking can increase customer loyalty and enhance branding awareness. To be successful, companies must contribute regularly to the social media space and remain transparent about their intention, whether the goal is to educate the public or sell a product or service.

Don’t forget that In business, the bottom line often dictates strategy. A social media strategy, not unlike a traditional marketing strategy, does not yield immediate results. Building a following takes time and patience

By Shanti Anne Morais