Social media is fresh, fast - and mostly free. So it is not surprising that business' use of social media to connect with customers and peers has exploded.
To make the most of it, like any form of marketing, you will need to carefully consider your objectives and marry them with social media's most suitable form. You will also need to invest some time - and patience - for your efforts to bear fruit. Setting targets and monitoring effectiveness once you are up and running is also essential to get the most out of your social media efforts.
This guide will show you the key steps you need to take to build a cohesive and effective social media strategy.
Social media provides a number of tools which enable you to have a dialogue with customers, both individually and collectively.
Selecting social media channels used by your potential customers can provide valuable exposure for your business at a lesser cost than many traditional customer acquisition methods.
Careful use of social media provides another method of generating invaluable word-of-mouth recommendation for your business.
You can raise your business profile or the profile of individuals within your business.
If you use social media to generate customer feedback - and you are then seen to act on it - you can establish yourself as a service-led, customer-focused business.
Leading debates on blogs and forums can help you be seen as innovative and forward-thinking.
The easier it is for customers to communicate with you, the higher they will regard you. Social media gives them a chance to communicate at a time they choose, in a manner they choose, with a tone they choose.
But remember that honesty and integrity in your use of social media are paramount. Break your customers' trust in these key areas and your reputation will be damaged.
Networking opportunities provided by social media allow you to more easily keep existing relationships warm without leaving your desk.
You will be able to keep in touch with all parts of your supply chain (and your competitors, if you wish) in a relatively informal environment.
You will be able to source new suppliers more effectively by using the word-of-mouth recommendation principle provided by social media.
Like any successful form of marketing, you must target your efforts towards the channels that your customers or potential customers are using.
Look at existing social media outlets first to see if your customer base is using them. For example, are there discussion forums that cover your business sector?
If your customers are clearly already using one particular type of social media, such as Twitter or Facebook, that is an obvious place to create your own presence. But be realistic - for example, if your customer base doesn't use discussion forums, it is unlikely that the time and effort you may spend in building your own will bear fruit.
If you want to provide a quick and open dialogue with customers, micro-blogging, using a platform such as Twitter that only allows short messages, is a good option.
If you want your social media use to be less immediate and more considered, blogging provides a useful alternative.
Blogging also provides another route for potential customers to find you if they're not aware of your website.
If you use an 'off-the-shelf' blogging platform, such as Wordpress or MovableType, it will have an established distribution network which can spread your messages to more potential customers more quickly.
Getting involved with the social networks your customers use can differentiate you from competitors.
Specialist business-to-business networking media can keep you on your industry's map with comparatively little time and effort.
Constructively participating in forums can significantly boost your reputation. For example, if you supply central heating services, contributing positively in the relevant section of a forum for new homeowners with heating questions will be good for you.
If your business lends itself to frequent customer queries and there are no existing discussion forums, you can consider hosting a forum on your website. For example, if you are a home entertainment systems retailer, you could set up a forum where customers could comment on their purchases and discuss options between themselves as part of the buying process.
In some cases, you will find your best choice of social media is obvious. For example, you may already use Facebook personally and find that there is a group on Facebook that reflects your business interests and is used by your customers.
Sometimes you may find that you will need to combine social media channels to best effect.
You should try to cross-promote your social media where suitable.
Whatever form of social media you decide to use, you will need to allocate time to manage and update it.
If you have staff, consider how they can help manage your social media marketing. You don't necessarily have to do everything yourself and staff may be able to add some character to your social media activities.
But make the boundaries between business and personal communication clear.
Exciting and powerful as social media is, remember it is just one part of your marketing plan - and allocate resources accordingly.
It is unlikely that social media will replace more traditional marketing methods, so you will need to continue with those.
When you are revising your marketing plan, think about which of your existing marketing activities can be better delivered through social media.
But only make changes if they match your customers' behaviour. It is not a good idea to try to force customers to contact you via a micro-blog if they would prefer to phone.
Like other electronic communication, social media benefits from being highly measurable.
Keep track of the time and effort you are investing in your social media by setting targets, such as increasing traffic to your website by, say, 5% a month or generating 200 hits on your blog.
But remember you will need to give social media time - it is rarely an overnight transformation unless you have hit on something really unique. A micro-blog may hit your targets relatively quickly, while building a discussion forum can take months of hard work.
Use the measurability provided by social media to consistently refine your approach.
Use of social media is a fast-changing and growing art. Learn from what you do, and don't be afraid of trying new approaches. Maintain what works well, but don't be afraid to experiment. Unlike, for example, a wholesale redesign of your promotional material, dipping a toe into running a blog need not be costly.
Plain sales messages will at best turn off the readers of social media - and at worst actively turn them against you.
Running competitions and offering special deals and discounts to your social media followers can be a successful strategy, however.
Social media provides a much more two-way communication than traditional media. It is just as much about hearing what your customers want to tell you as it is about you marketing to them.
Using social media is primarily an investment in time. And it takes time for your presence to spread across the web. Keep a close eye on how it is working for you, but don't lose heart if it doesn't transform your marketing strategy overnight.
Use a tone for your social media that's consistent with the messages you send customers through other channels. For example, if your sales catalogue is formal and functional, a hip and funky micro-blog will jar.
Regularly review and frequently update your social media. A frequently updated blog or well-managed forum will encourage customers to come back. But a sporadically updated blog or forum will dissuade them from visiting again.