When it comes to social media in the enterprise, we’re at an interesting inflection point. For some time now, companies have been trying to figure out the business value of social media in communicating with customers as well as communicating internally among themselves.

Many are still figuring it out, many already have, and many have decided social media simply isn’t for them. Those who have figured it out realize social media isn’t one size fits all. It’s not a single technology with a single purpose. Depending on which tools are used and how, social media can translate into better marketing, better internal visibility and collaboration, better customer service – but whatever business function is improved, it should ultimately translate into better business for the organization as a whole.

I hesitate to say that any company has truly mastered social media, for social media is in constant flux – bent every which way by the constant evolution of technology and how it incites or reflects changes in the way people behave. But in my experience, the companies that have figured out how to harness the power of social media for business gain have been able to do it by combining the alignment of people, tools and methods with an ongoing process of experimentation, value assessment and continued refinement. But before this can happen, decisions need to be made.

Choose Your Channels

If you’re B2B, you may want to go with Twitter, LinkedIn and Quora or even the new Google+. If you’re B2C, perhaps you’ll opt for Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Or for better sharing of information internally, perhaps you’ve settled on Salesforce Chatter. There are plenty of other tools to choose from. The important thing is to thoroughly research these channels. Who uses them and how are they being used? Look for success stories as well as examples of failures to better capitalize on proven methods while avoiding the pitfalls.

Choose Your Method

What is your message? What is your purpose? Who are you reaching out to? Which markets are you trying to better understand? What new markets are you trying to develop? Social media doesn’t change the fundamentals of Marketing 101. It just presents new ways to achieve your marketing objectives.

Choose Your Destination

Once you’ve captured some listeners, where are you sending them? Your call center? An event? Ninety percent of the time, companies are using social media to drive traffic and leads to a website. But then what? How will your site stoke deeper engagement? How can you induce the prospect to provide more info about themselves and their needs? How can you provide more information about your products and services in a compelling way? Will you do it with a white paper, videos, Web seminars and how-to guides?

Choose How to Manage Your Data

Where is information about a prospect being stored? Who will have access? How will this information be used? How will you keep your leads interested? How will you know when they’re sales ready? Scoring incoming data to determine where a prospect resides in the nurturing cycle will help you maximize the value of every lead.

Data management is a big part of the equation. What kind of data is available? What should be captured? How can it be combined and interpreted with other data? How can one act on this data? Explicit data, or data the lead provided, provides important particulars such as name, company, title, budget, time frame, product/service needs, demographic, etc.

But the real magic is in implicit data, which can include any number of customer characteristics and behaviours. What social channels are they coming in on? What are they liking on Facebook? What are they saying on Twitter? This kind of data can be extremely valuable given the limitless volume of it that exists online, what it says about the prospect, and the creative ways this data can be applied.

For instance, some organizations might not identify a “raised hand” during a Web seminar as a qualified lead. But for other organizations, a raised hand shows a lead is interested enough to create questions and to interact, clearly information that should be added to a lead’s profile for at that very moment the lead is communicating a desire to have some sort of a relationship. How deep and long of a relationship comes down to how quickly and how well the company responds.

Unfortunately for many, what makes implicit data so valuable – its sheer volume – is also what renders it so difficult to manage. Here’s where technology lends a helping hand, with more of it today being developed to capture and make sense of the data being created via the vast human interactions that occur online. By combining your sales and marketing automation tools (Salesforce, Eloqua, etc.) and Web analytics (Webtrends, Google Analytics, etc.) with CRM, transactional and other interactional data, businesses are able to create compelling, three-dimensional profiles that allow them to interact with customers in an equally compelling, three-dimensional way.

Once you have settled on your tools and methods, you must focus your efforts on the people phase – particularly training and adoption. Culture is key, but challenges persist, especially among older workforces who are reluctant to embrace the loose, casual nature of social media. Create a strategy for communicating to all key elements within the organization the power of social media – how it can help drive not only the business but their own careers.

Social media might not be right for your business, but given the high potential for success at low cost and risk, it certainly warrants exploration. As more businesses reach the stage in which they’re able to employ social media strategically for real, measurable business results, making sense of social media for your business is something that makes sense.

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