By Lisa Abbott, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Alcatel Lucent

There are a lot of market opportunities to be had by embracing social media, says Lisa Abbott, Senior Product Manager, Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise Genesys, but they will only be realised after enterprises go through a series of steps to optimise their social media channels for the customer’s sake. Customers need to trust the channel before it can be expected to generate revenue.

Booz & Co. estimates that sales of physical goods via social channels will reach £3.1bn globally in 2011, with the value of social commerce set to grow to approximately £18.5bn within 5 years.

If companies are to maximise the potential of using the channel for commercial opportunities in the future, they need to build an effective social media strategy now. For this to be effective, companies need to implement the channel effectively across all departments, front and back office, to deal with customers — both proactively and reactively — through this channel.

Four steps to social media effectiveness — the platform for social commerce

There are four distinct steps to integrating social media effectively, after which the fifth step of social commerce will follow. These four initial steps enable an organisation to build trust with customers, after which they can take the final step towards social commerce.

First — Listen to your customers — good and bad

The power of tribal knowledge is growing rapidly. Consumers are increasingly using social media to research products they are considering purchasing. They seek peer recommendation and give their own opinions as advocates for — or critics of — products they've bought or experiences they've had.

There is consequently always a mix of both positive and negative sentiment out there. The companies that listen to it are able to analyse this sentiment effectively so to understand what's happening in the social media space, and identify potential improvements which could be made to their customer service and notice opportunities to exploit.

Second — Prioritise — the lowest value customer might have the biggest influence

Understanding who the biggest customers are in the social media arena is key. Today, someone can spend very little, but influence a significant amount of revenue through their large social media following, making effective social media monitoring invaluable.

With knowledge of what your customers want comes the responsibility to use that knowledge effectively. Once tribal knowledge is captured, it should inform the company’s knowledge base to improve the effectiveness of existing strategy.

Third — Engage with your customers — that means be proactive

It’s not just a case of responding to customers effectively, but being proactive in customer service. With the knowledge of who is important comes the next question: “What do I need to do to respond?”

The most important things are engagement and education. If someone influences purchasers, allow them to review your products and inform others on how good they are via social media. If they offer help to existing customers, embrace these individuals and share tips with them. Most of all, be proactive with them.

Fourth — Integrate social media effectively — and btw, the rules have changed

You need not just visibility and accessibility, but real agility within social media. The measurements of social media's success are simply not the same as those of telephone or email.

Social media demands greater immediacy, which means that four-hour response times are unacceptable. A social media strategy should be implemented and integrated in a way that requires no rip and replace of existing solutions, but sits side-by-side with every other communications channel and leverages existing investments.

Finally — Harnessing the power of social commerce

Whilst recent Shoppercentric research shows that only six percent of consumers currently purchase goods through social media, it is clear that the scope of social media to be used for commerce in the future is huge if the Booz and Co figures are to be believed.

Looking at Facebook statistics, the site now has 500 million active users, 50 percent of which log on in any given day. Combined with a recent comScore report which found that Facebook and Twitter visitors spend 1.5 times more online that the average Internet user, the potential return on investment for an effective social commerce strategy could be huge.

Dell is an organisation which has seen such success through using social media for commerce. The company made £4.2m by adding Twitter as a commercial channel in the first two years of selling in the social space. Once you're engaged with your customers, you can harness the commercial aspect of social media effectively, and with enough relevant information on customers, you can proactively push targeted sales offers and promotions, reaping the benefits of a far higher conversion rate than direct marketing.

The key is building trust with your customers

Only after an organisation has listened to and prioritised its social media interactions, and been able to manage and integrate its social media channel across its business, will it really be able to reap the commercial power of social media.

For companies looking to integrate social commerce into existing social media platforms, it is essential that they have a solid knowledge of existing customers before trying to sell to them through social media. Customers need to be able to trust an organisation before buying from them through such channels.