Social Media – What is it and How Can it Benefit My Business?

With phrases such as "tweeting", "un-friending" and "liking" now becoming common place terms, confused business owners frequently ask me "what is social media?" and "how can I use it to promote my business?"

Put simply, social media is people using the web to have conversations. A fairly simple concept, but it's simplicity should not be used to underestimate its power. While people may use social networking sites to have conversations about topics as mundane as what they had for lunch, they also delve into more pressing topics, such as politics, religion, world events and even your brand.

In August 2009, Cadbury felt the full force brunt of an anti-Cadbury campaign that disgruntled consumers launched on Facebook. The Facebook pages "Take palm oil out of Cadbury chocolate bars" and "Boycott Cadbury Palm Oil Chocolate" accumulated over 3,500 fans between them and sent such a clear message to the New Zealand confectionery producer that they issued a formal apology to consumers and announced them would cease using palm oil in their products.

Meanwhile, more positive examples of social media "chatter" can be found in the numerous Facebook fan pages dedicated to the Coke brand – my personal favorite being the "It's not Christmas until the Coke lorry is on the telly" page. People use these pages as a platform to express their appreciation of a particular product or brand and share their experiences. What amazingly powerful information for the Coke marketing machine to have access to – real world examples of what marketing works and what does not.

The opportunity social media presents for your business is the ability to listen, participate and influence these online conversations. Think of it like being able to position your best sales person at the first worldwide networking event. Instead of just "working" a room, your sales people can "work" the nation, or even the world. How useful would it be for your business to get direct access to your target market and ask them what they want? The return and impact on your internal systems, product / service development and marketing would be immeasurable.

But it is important to know how to stimulate this type of conversation. After all, simply setting up a Facebook page or Twitter account is not enough to get people chatting about your business. You need to have a clear social media strategy in place that outlines your goals, guidelines, tactics and even a crisis plan.

Part of this strategy needs to address what type of content you will provide on social networking sites and what resource you will owe to this. Many companies make the mistake of setting up a social media presence and either neglect it (dedicating no source to keep it up to date and interesting), or spend all their time pushing out "hard sell" post after "hard sell" post, and wondering why their fan base is not growing.

Like in a face to face networking situation, you can not spend the entire time talking about yourself -otherwise your potential prospects will quickly excuse themselves (or in the social media landscape "un-friend / un-follow" you) and avoid you altogether. Instead, you need to dedicate resource to engage people by asking them about themselves (and experiences with your brand / products), listen to what they have to say, offer your company's opinions and share advice / experience. Through this "give and take" philosophy, you can then start weaving in posts promoting your latest product / service launch or special offer. Remember, social media is online conversations, not online broadcasting without a listening ear.