Most companies now accept that they need some form of social media presence. Web 2.0 technologies are more than passing fads or teenage toys and there are some very real business benefits for engaging in this space. But very few companies are making the most of their social media presence. The single biggest reason for this is that most of them are simply using social media as an extension of their existing business practices.

The biggest mistake is to simply take your selling approach and impose it directly onto a social media platform. Thinking that you can use Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn as a direct sales tool is the easiest way to waste time and money in social media.

So if your company has a Facebook page or a Twitter stream and a LinkedIn profile, how can you make sure that you are making the most of your social media presence? There are at least three things that you should be doing with Web 2.0:

1. Prove your expertise

Probably the most important use of social media is to ensure that your target market has an almost constant reminder of your expertise in your chosen field and industry. The centerpiece of your social media activity should therefore most likely to be a blog of one form or another (for example, it might be a weekly newsletter that is uploaded to the web). Your blog should have regular pieces written by key members of your team, or extracts from industry related publications that highlight your detailed knowledge, insights and expertise in your field.

All your other social media activity – like Twitter feeds, YouTube videos, Facebook status updates, newsletters and so on – should mainly be focused at driving people to read your blog. By reading your blog on a regular basis your target market will be reminded of your presence and your abilities. If you have key clients that you are pursuing, consider writing blog entries that you know will be of particular interest to them. Then email your prospects with a link to your blog entry stating very simply, ‘we recently wrote something which I think you might find of interest’.

Your blog also allows you to show something of your corporate personality. Make sure that your blog reflects whatever personality you want to show to your target market. Are you fun, cheeky, serious, intense, quirky, global, innovative, secure, sexy? Make sure these come across in your blog.

If you have a team of people contributing to your blog, ensure that you have a system for uploading bog entries so that they happen within a steady stream and institute some form of editorial policy to ensure a consistency of style and approach. Content really is king in social media. Badly written blog entries, irrelevant content and out of date issues are all sure fire way to loose your followers.

2. Tap into and build a community around you

The very best examples of using social media for business purposes almost all involve activating a community around your business and product offerings. Most people view technology and social media as new channels to connect with their customers. This may be true – and is one use of social media. But the best use of social media goes well beyond this, by making sure your customers also connect with each other. The easiest way to do this is to create a community of people who are passionate about something related to your products and services and to build a platform onto which your business can flourish and grow even if you weren’t involved.

Probably the company that does this best is Apple. Over the years they have found a way to create an almost cult-like community of people who use and purchase their products. They do this through a skillful use of Public Relations, carefully programmed releases of new products and continual communication with the mavens within their target markets. Apple illustrate the fact that your social media campaigns should be linked to real world campaigns and business initiatives as well. They are not stand-alone elements of your communications and marketing strategies.

I recently did some work with a company that provides pet insurance. They realized that very few people have a passion for insurance but obviously most of the people they are trying to connect with have a passion for their pets. They worked on a number of strategies to create online social media communities related to pets and their owners. One of my favourite examples was of an online pet and owner photo competition that gathered thousands of entries and became a community all on its own. Because this company was integrally involved in the community they were also able to, in very subtle ways, promote their products and services after the community had been established.

And so the question to you is: what are the communities around your business and how can you activate them using social media? Thinking this way will also alert you to the fact that social media is not a short-term sales campaign. Social media will not bring you the type of results you want it to bring within three to six months. You need to be thinking of social media as part of your public relations and long term branding strategies and look for returns on investment in three to five years time as you slowly and progressively build these communities.

3. Build your referral network

The explosion of social media into our world has not just been because it is a sexy new technology. It is largely because we as human beings have a deep-seated desire to connect, to collaborate and to contribute. Throughout the ages the best form of marketing was always referral marketing based on advice from trusted advisors. The world of social media has made it a lot easier to find trusted advisors.

This is why social search is becoming so popular – with people limiting their searches on Bing to only those sites that their Facebook friends have ‘liked’, and with Google’s new social search which allows you to limit your search to only those websites that have been mentioned on your fiends social networks. Who we trust, where we go for information, how we decide on what to buy – all of these things are changing and social media is one of the main drivers of this change. You need to make sure that you use the community that you activate around you to develop a network of trusted advisors.

In technical terms this means ensuring that your website is constantly connected to and referred to by other people in their social networks. Give people a reason to connect to your website to put your website details in their Facebook updates and Twitter feeds and actively encourage them to link into you, connect with you and to promote your pages. Make sure that you’ve got a Facebook ‘I Like’ (and Google One+) button on every single one of your website pages. Provide easy –to-use widgets that help people to share your website in any one of the multiple social media platforms that they are connected with. Make it easy for people to talk about you and refer people to you. One of the best ways to do this these days is with video. Too few companies realize the power of YouTube and the importance of having a YouTube channel as part of your social media strategy.

Think process not campaign

From everything I have said it should be clear that making the most of social media for business purpose will require you to be strategic in your use of web 2.0. This is not something that should be given to the youngest, hippest person in your organisation to “see what happens”. This should very much be part of the strategic intent of the senior leadership of your organisation. It should also be very clear that it isn’t just about duplicating your other campaigns and strategies and using social media merely as a new channel.

You need to understand that social media opens up a whole new world of opportunities – but this new world requires new rules, new methods, new metrics and new approaches. The three issues I have highlighted above will put you well on the path to significantly improving your use of social media.

TomorrowToday Global