Ben Sharpley, consultant at Cameron Wells Communications

A website founded little more than five years ago recently became the most visited site on the internet. Social networking phenomenon Facebook overtook even the likes of Google in March this year, with its half a billion users spending a reported average of 6 hours a month on it.

Unless you’ve been living on another planet recently, you’ll probably know that Facebook is part of what is commonly known as ‘social media’ - a phenomenon that is rapidly changing the way we communicate.

What is social media?

If you’ve ever tagged a photo or written a blog, commented in an online forum or updated your status, suggested a friend or even watched a You Tube video then you’ve got first-hand experience of social media.

Social media is comprised of a growing number of these online platforms which range from streaming video sites to micro-blogs, photo album sites to live web-casts.

The seemingly inexorable rise of social media has literally torn down all previous barriers to communication, replacing traditional forms of communication with vast online communities where one thing is king — conversation.

Until recently, the only practical way in which most organisations could have a real, tangible conversation with its customers was by post or telephone - which, in hindsight, was actually incredibly impractical.

In social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Linked-in and You Tube, companies have been presented with an opportunity to engage with customers like never before, and if you think having a social networking page is only for Apple, Tesco and Pepsi — think again.

What does this mean for your business?

There has been a great deal of debate about the merits of social media for small to medium enterprises and many have been put off by its apparent complexity — particularly business-to-business (B2B) organisations.

Despite this, however, the answer to whether your business should be looking at using social media is, in most cases, found relatively simply. As a general rule, if your prospects and/or customers are using social media, then your business has got a very good reason to take at least take a closer look.

It’s good to talk

Social media provides a unique opportunity to engage with prospects and customers but to do this, you need to have something to talk about - something to discuss.

We’re not simply talking about telling the world how good your product or service is here though; this is about encouraging conversation, asking questions and raising concerns.

Can you talk about the key issues your industry is facing or the effect these could have on your prospects? Are you in the know about future industry developments and can you provide insight into the consequences for your customers?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to at least one of these you have an opportunity to position yourself as a ‘voice’ within your industry or sector. Do this, and social media communities will welcome you with open arms and as a consequence, when you do introduce your product or service, they will be far more likely to take you seriously.

In fact, a recent study has actually shown that those who are ‘fans’ or ‘followers’ of brands on Facebook and Twitter, are significantly more likely to purchase products or services or actively recommend the brand.

How do you do this though?

For those who do have something valuable to contribute to discussions, finding the best way to communicate it is vital. As a business, you understand what your customers want and need but to be noticed, you need to understand what social media platforms your targets are using and how they want to receive your information.

At the same time however, you should consider your own strengths and weaknesses. For example, if writing isn’t your forte then a blog could prove challenging. There have been recent suggestions that video content is much more appealing to decision makers than other formats but if you struggle for time, then producing and posting a You Tube video may well be beyond your means. But don’t let that deter you!

If you lack the resources to undertake such a task in-house, talk to a PR and marketing consultancy that knows your industry. They will be able to guide you through the endless possibilities of social media and what it may hold for your business.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ fad. If we weren’t looking for potential friends, sharing experiences and ideas, and engaging in debate, we wouldn’t be human - these are the habits that formed the basis of modern civilization.

All social media has done is move these most fundamental of traits online but in doing so, has started a communication revolution that is destined to affect just about every business on the planet — including yours.

So businesses beware! If your customers are using social media platforms and you aren’t available to respond or engage with them, one thing is almost inevitable - your competitors will be.