By Manish Mehta, Vice President For Social Media and Community, Dell

Technology firm Dell has been a forerunner in using Twitter to highlight deals to loyal consumers. What advice does Dell VP for social media and community, Manish Mehta, have for the smaller business?

How important is it for SMEs to become involved in social media?

Social media is a strong marketing tool that any size organisation can use. It’s especially useful for mid-size and smaller companies who want to interact with their existing and potential customers, without the cost and location limitations of other marketing tools.

SMEs can reach out to existing ‘followers’, recruit new ‘followers’ and then have conversations with them using social media, just like they would in a physical networking situation.

Who could have predicted what Twitter has done to the world of business two years ago? Social media is incredibly powerful but it should be only part of your marketing strategy, not your only strategy.

It’s easy to set up a Facebook or LinkedIn page, and then you’re playing on a level field against your bigger competitors. But it will only work if you combine it with a wider digital marketing strategy - informed and continually supported by and in support of SEO, Adwords, customer retention, newsletters, PR and all your other marketing activities.

And the fundamentals of social networking are just the same as traditional marketing — you still need a great hook, and be able to offer something of value to a potential customer.

As online advertising is becoming less and less profitable, how do you see companies making money in the future?

Dell’s social media efforts are about listening and connecting with customers, furthering our relationships and realising value of direct customer understanding and connections. You might think about it in terms of the neighbourhood restaurant you or your parents might have always gone to many years ago — the restaurant owner knew you, had specials for you, welcomed your suggestions and you felt at home. Ultimately that kind of connection, indeed customer intimacy is where we focus, not on advertising profitability.

What should SMEs be looking at when it comes to SEO?

SEO should not just be about generating more traffic. It’s a question of what traffic do you want to generate, and how do you structure a website long term. It’s standing back, looking at it and saying “What do we need to do with the business and how does SEO fit into that?”

Is building trust important?

Users trust each other more than they trust you. That’s a fact. So the only way to get them to trust you and let you guide them through a purchase is to be open, honest, fair and do all this better than your competitors.

Social media can help to build a relationship with your existing customers or explore new markets. But there’s a lot of potential to screw up — so have a proper brand-building plan, and tie it into your PR and other marketing activities.

Building a digital marketing strategy should focus on these core areas, and explore other new technologies and platforms as they emerge. The new online world isn’t so different from traditional marketing, but to get ahead, SMEs need to embrace it, not hide from it.

Twitter, Facebook, social networking, videos, blogging — how you get your message out there is up to you — but you do need to get it out there. Look at how you can integrate your business into people’s lifestyles — they want it now and they want it on demand and if you’re not thinking like that, you’re in danger of being left behind very quickly.

What advice would you give smaller companies branching out into social media?

Listen before you do anything. Hear what customers are saying and then take time to understand. Once a business has been listening for a while then they are in a good position to start engaging. Aside from those basic principles, there are four simple steps smaller companies should take when getting started with social media:

1. Sign up to Twitter. This is fairly simple but once an organisation has signed up to Twitter they must ensure they learn how to use it to their advantage and are able to monitor, listen and respond to conversations about their company.

2. Create a Facebook page. Facebook isn’t just for personal use, it can be a valuable business tool. At the least it allows businesses to promote offers, ask questions and engage customers.

3. Sign up to Linkedin. Linkedin allows individuals to network with like minded professionals, look for new resources and partners and connect with current and past work colleagues.

4. Share details. Once signing up to each of these tools then organisations should make sure the icons for each sight are clearly displayed on their websites and email signatures, providing customers with a variety of different methods to get in touch, whatever their preference.

ad:tech London 2010 is taking place at Olympia National, London, 21-22 September 2011. Take advantage of the FREE seminars, masterclasses, networking and advice. Ask questions and discuss strategy. Hear what works (and more importantly) what fails from the big players in the industry.

This year, speakers include: Google, Facebook, Forbes, LBi, Amazon, Ebay, YouTube, Nike, Disney, AOL, Intel and the Guardian. For more information visit: www.ad-techlondon.co.uk.