By Claire Macland, Head of Avaya Marketing EMEA

Social media is fast becoming the primary engagement channel for certain ages of the population, and where the younger generation leads, experience tells us the mainstream will eventually follow.

People now spend more time in social networking communities than they do with e-mail, and most of us use one or several social networks daily to connect with friends or share photos with family.

The fact that hundreds of millions of people use social media every day makes it an incredibly powerful tool — whether it is Barack Obama using social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and MySpace to attract youth support or Iranian protestors using it to share messages with each other and the outside world. But the question remains: how can small businesses harness the immense power that these social network platforms can potentially unleash?

Social Media as part of a Customer Engagement Strategy
Creating a Facebook page or setting up a LinkedIn profile is not something you should start without a plan or an objective.

When you start to consider social media as part of your overall integrated marketing strategy, you’ll start to see where you should focus your efforts.

For example, are you trying to increase awareness of your company, in which case Twitter or LinkedIn might be the best approach? Or are you trying to make the most of a single event and perhaps Facebook can play a role?

If your objective is to build an active community where you engage in a two-way dialogue with customers and advocates of your products you might consider building your own community site or microsite.

Once you know what you are trying to achieve, you will have a better idea of what social media platforms are relevant to you. Most importantly you will know how to measure its success, which will help guide and direct future activity.

The Power of Peer Recommendation

Social networks empower and automate the process of peer recommendation, enabling businesses to reach more customers than ever before. Nearly 88% of communications decision makers argue they use their peers as their number one choice for recommendations, so it is clear that social networking can play a role here.

For SMEs, this is one additional avenue to provide benefits, serve and support customers. Many rightly see social media as a means to create visibility, amplify sales efforts and engage with customers. Unfortunately, all too often their social media efforts are carried out in isolation and with limited consideration for the wider impact they can have on the business — good or bad.

For social media elements to be successful they must, from the offset, be integrated with broader marketing initiatives so the process is dynamic and effective.

A healthy social media presence also requires early
planning and a regular drumbeat of contributions, communications, answers and updates to reflect the speed with which this community moves. This lightning-quick way of communicating is quickly becoming the accepted norm. As a result, SMEs that can adapt their communications to accommodate this change can ensure they continue delivering services above and beyond customers’ expectations.

People are likely blogging, and sharing information about your business online, even as we speak, regardless of whether you have a social media strategy in place or not. And so, the old adage ‘if you can’t beat ‘em join’ them seems particularly well suited here.

Social media is a phenomenon that cannot be ignored. So, it makes sense to start engaging with potential customers through this medium and begin monitoring the networks to see what is being written about your company and even your competitors as they talk about your company news, their own views of your brand or their experiences of working with you.

A good social networking strategy will enable select employees in your company to respond to queries and correct misconceptions in real time, helping to shape conversations and decisions that affect the way your brand is being perceived.

Tone of Voice

It is this level of human interaction that is the greatest appeal of social media but also often the biggest challenge for traditional marketers to overcome.

Even though you might be acting as an ‘official’ representative of your company, it’s best to stay casual and transparent - honesty is key. Social networks are extremely public and highly visible. In an instant, content and comments can be distributed outside of networks and gain momentum outside of your control. Responding to comments posted online can be a shared responsibility among the team to ensure the conversation is balanced and controlled.

As customer contact centres begin to integrate social media into their framework, we can expect to see a lot more of this.

Whether it is technicians engaging directly with customers who might be having difficulty configuring software to their mobile, or customer service representatives simply offering links to helpful forums, by being present on social media platforms and by monitoring customer queries, companies can offer immediate help, which means faster response times and happier customers and partners.

Regardless of the size of your business, social media can enhance your marketing strategy, and help support your customers.

Social media experts can also help create content that is interesting enough to be distributed from peer to peer and eventually go “viral” attracting new audiences and followers.

While Stephen Fry has become something of a Twitter phenomenon, attracting millions of followers, so too have more unlikely figures such as John Prescott, who has used social networking to drive political debate both in the UK and across Europe.

In this way social networking is a true meritocracy, a chance for smaller organisations to gain as much share voice or customer interest as much bigger players since success is judged on the value for the content rather than the money invested in supporting it.

Social media is a means to reach potential customers in a personal way and influence their perception of your business. It can generate greater awareness of your company and even generate new business.

The way customers communicate is evolving and social media is one of the tools small businesses can use to take part in the conversation — a simple tweet, tag or blog post is an easy and effective way to stay even more connected to your customer. The key is to do it regularly and with relevance and as part of an integrated marketing mix.