By Simon Flatt, Director, Pinnacle Marketing Communications, Ltd.

From LinkedIn to Facebook and Twitter to blogs and forums, we're all touched daily in one way or the other by social media. And in a world where there are now around one billion ‘tweets’ per week and where Facebook, if it were a country, would be the world's third largest, then social media clearly cannot be ignored. However, while almost all businesses have a 'gut feeling' that social media should play an important role in their marketing communications and CRM (Customer Relationship Management) activities, most have yet to find a way to actually make social media work for them.

Ironically one of the challenges in executing a good social media campaign is that the barrier to entry for creating a social media presence is almost non-existent. Opening a Twitter account or creating a Facebook page is the work of seconds rather than hours. However, simply creating this presence without thinking how this will fit into an overall promotional strategy can be worse than doing nothing at all. Clearly doing nothing isn't a viable option either - there is every possibility that conversations about a company and its products are already taking place in the social media space in Blogs and forums - while Facebook is now automatically generating company pages, often without anyone in the company even knowing.

There are five fundamental elements to creating and executing a successful social media campaign:

Make it strategic

Social media should not be something that can be done because the barrier to entry is low but because it forms part of the larger marketing communications and CRM strategy. It should be linked to overall business objectives and budgets should be allocated in the same way as any other strategic investment.

Two way communication

Don't treat social media platforms as another broadcast medium. They offer the potential to engage customers and prospects in real conversations and should be approached with this in mind.

Know what the customers want to hear

This is not always the same as what a company wants to say. If a company wants to engage with its customers and prospects it has to understand what the conversation needs to be about.

Content is king

The sustained generation of quality content is fundamental to any social media campaign. A big push in the first few weeks and then nothing for months on end - and there are plenty of companies that have done just that - is simply throwing money down the drain. If a company doesn't have the in-house resource to regularly create and post content, they need to outsource these activities to a specialist who has the time.

Listen and respond to the conversations

It is vital to monitor both company-driven social media platforms and other platforms where customers and prospects may communicate, listen to what is being said and respond appropriately as soon as possible.

If a company gets these five elements right - and, as with any other activity, they regularly audit and assess the campaign against some specific objectives and goals - they will be well on the way to harnessing the significant opportunity that social media offers for businesses to engage with their customers in ways that traditional media has simply not been able to deliver.