One thing has become clear in 2010: social media plays a larger role in our lives than ever before. ComScore’s report “The 2009 U.S. Digital Year in Review” shows that in the U.S. social networking now makes up 11 percent of all the time spent online. Facebook – which reported triple-digit growth in 2009 – saw 112 million visitors in December 2009. Nearly a quarter of these Facebook users are 25 to 34 year olds - the tastemakers and trendsetters of the young professional world.

The popularity of social media can make it a powerful tool for companies that manage it correctly. Not only can these new channels be used for customer service and interaction, but they are also invaluable as online brand management tools. These allow you to monitor and collect data on what customers are saying and react to it in real time across your organization, whether the issue is in PR, sales and marketing or product development.

Unfortunately, as social media has become more prevalent in the lives of consumers and a more important tool for businesses, it has become much more difficult for companies to effectively manage. Digital communications channels have multiplied, and the amount of social media data available in 2010 – from tweets to blogs to customer reviews – is already huge. This customer feedback treasure trove continues to grow exponentially, meaning that companies interested in monitoring and leveraging such data (and that should be most) need to invest significant planning and resources into their social media strategies.

The issue for companies now lies not in recognizing the importance of social media – I think we’ve all caught on to that – but in fully embracing social media as an essential part of corporate best practices. Many businesses remain wary of using social media proactively or of making it a major piece of their larger business strategy. Some have tried to sneak in social media as one-off campaign efforts or have relegated it solely to the marketing department rather than incorporating it into the big-picture organizational strategy.

This halfway-but-no-further approach won’t deliver the bang that each social media buck is capable of. Social-savvy consumers will not be impressed with a brand that lacks the strategy or know-how to use social media effectively, and reticence in the social world can harm your brand’s reputation in the online community.

The consumer has been king for quite a while now, but in the new social world, the consumer is more powerful than ever before. Consumers’ Facebook statuses, tweets, blogs and YouTube videos can build or break your brand in the eyes of their online friends – and your potential buyers. It is each company’s responsibility to make its own voice heard in all this noise. Give customers positive news and information to discuss online – not only will you encourage further discussion of your brand, building brand recognition, but any positive news will proactively boost your brand’s reputation.

And remember, the information on the social Web isn’t just for customers to use as they please. Your company can use what customers and prospects post online to gauge public sentiment about your product, troubleshoot with unsatisfied customers, and engage possible superfans with your brand, which can all positively affect your bottom line.

Customers, and their happiness, have always been the key to business success. Much more than catering to or selling to them, customers want you to listen. Social media has made the listening process easier in some ways and more difficult in others. On the one hand, as it has opened up new communication channels for customers, social media has made it easier for consumers to get their messages out. Additionally, the real-time speed and person-to-person intimacy of social media has made it easier for companies to show that they’re listening by responding quickly and personally to individuals through their online medium of choice. These simple responses work; a recent study by the Center for Client Retention showed that 55 percent of consumers surveyed gave high marks to companies that responded to their posts on social media sites.

However, in a world that sees thousands of tweets every second, knowing what to listen and respond to is exponentially more difficult than in the good old days of the customer call center. Social monitoring tools that gather, analyze and deliver actionable, relevant data to your company can play an important part here.

The right tools are only part of the solution. For your social media strategy to be truly effective,
your company has to have the internal processes in place to wield those tools. You should implement a clear social media strategy with measurable goals across the enterprise. Every arm of your company can benefit from the use of social media and the business intelligence it can offer. In fact, social media listening as a standalone data set won’t get you anywhere in the long term – it’s only when you view social media information through the prism of other corporate data sources that it can become useful to the real corporate decision-makers. Thus, a collective strategy that spans silos is essential.

Future business success will depend on an enterprise approach to social media. This approach should include listening to the customer, interacting with consumers and gathering useful data in real-time, all while deftly managing your brand. Companies that can use social media to create a customer-centric organization will pull ahead in this increasingly social world.

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