By Connie Bensen, Director of Social Media and Communication Strategy at Alterian.

With the recession forcing businesses to look at the way they operate in a new light, social media has come to the fore in terms of reaching and interacting with customers. Businesses are beginning to realise that consumers today expect to be more than just a pair of ears on the wrong end of a one way conversation.

Social media now provides a cost effective method to gain an in-depth sense of what consumers want and need. It’s a diverse global community that allows people to connect in an informal setting and build relationships with each other. Twitter, for example, has proven to be an invaluable network for growing a brand and businesses should explore how it can be utilised for their needs and revenue growth.

Engage the individual

It is no longer enough to push out one message for everyone and expect to engage customers. Especially when by using digital channels businesses are able to listen, understand and engage on an individual level. A recent survey by Alterian revealed that 31 per cent of respondents using social media believe that ‘companies are genuinely interested in them.’

In the case of Virgin Galactic, their engaging interaction with potential spaceflight passengers via their website helped to prove that there was a market for space travel. It also helped to raise $10m in advance bookings — enough to prove to the Virgin Board that it was a viable venture.

Building a social media strategy

There is no one-size-fits-all approach, which may be why in our recent research we found that that 60% of organisations do not have a social media strategy in place.

There needs to be a mass education of the tools and techniques out there to help businesses learn about social media, how to listen, engage and act appropriately. This should be a gradual process where companies slowly begin to build their engagement skills.

Don’t rush straight in, what we are saying is listen first, understand your customer and the rest will follow.

Monitor conversations

With more conversations taking place online than ever, the need to monitor the vast amount of data and review what is being said about your company is also a must.

Alterian’s analysis of the UK General Election examined 500,000 conversations across various social media platforms, providing volume and sentiment analysis of the main political leaders over the course of the election.

In business an ability to understand and nurture conversations allows you to predict future customer activity, and then use the information to shape your ongoing social media strategy and ensure it provides value not only for the company, but for the customer.

When shouldn't you use it?

I think that there are more instances of companies ignoring social media than ones where you shouldn’t use it! If you are actively listening to conversations it will become clear where and how you should get involved.

For example, Toyota has been tarnished by its recent series of recalls and its failure to react quickly to address the serious concerns of consumers and the government about the safety of its vehicles.

This will become a classic example of an organisation not understanding the power of this new medium and its potential impact on a company’s bottom line.

Educate staff about social media.

In a recent Alterian survey, only 6% of respondents stated their staff were ‘extremely prepared to take advantage of the new channels.’ Therefore businesses will need to commit to a investment in appropriate skills across every department, as analysing, mobilising and interpreting data, quite possibly in real-time, presents significant challenges to existing skill sets.

The social web has evolved to the point where your customers want to be involved. Providing your visitors with the opportunity to interact and contribute content adds value for them and builds trust.

Social Media marketing is providing a whole new dimension for businesses to connect with customers. The social web is a vast entity and every business needs a tool to harness the information in the most cost effective and efficient manner.