A break-down of the usage and benefits of the major social media channels

It’s easy to say that social media is transforming the way businesses communicate with their customers, but describing exactly what that new environment looks like can get a bit more complicated. Over the last few years, the social media landscape has become something of an embarrassment of riches, with a diverse and expanding collection of services each offering its own set of tools and a slightly different customer base.

A little while ago, we took a look at the state of social media over this year, and the niches that each one has carved out. Now that we have a new year and a new range of opportunities to look forward to, it’s worth taking a moment to examine the best ways to take advantage of 2012’s top performers.

The Narrow Focus

Some of the most popular new social networks appear to be the simplest. Twitter, for instance, is a deliberately basic social networking tool, letting users post brief messages in plain text. But that simplicity gives it near-universal accessibility: Users can post an update using almost any device, from their computer to their phone or tablet to their Xbox. That makes it an easy way to collect a wealth of consumer information.

Because Twitter lets users add links to their messages, it’s a good way to promote news items or publicize updates on a company’s website or blog. But it’s also offers two powerful tools for engaging directly with customers: The hashtag, which lets users join into existing conversations on a particular topic or easily track how often their product’s “#brandname” appears in Twitter chatter, who is talking about it, and what they’re saying, while the ability to communicate directly to the user by typing that person’s “@username” can add a personal touch to the communication.

These touches are where the real power of social media lies, because it can turn a one-way transfer of information into a conversation, and an exercise of community-building. A retailer or service-based business could encourage users to “check in” on Foursquare, while a multimedia producer can use YouTube both to publicize company videos and track users’ reactions, by watching both the up- and down-votes and viewer comments. Not all of these tools will be useful for every business, but the social media landscape has produced enough services to offer some advantage to just about anyone.

The All-in-Ones

In some ways, mastering the more narrowly focused social media tools can help a business form a strategy when it comes to the monsters of the field. Facebook has amassed an unparalleled global user base, along with services allowing users to easily share updates, photos, videos, and organize events, but the wealth of features, and the focus on person-to-person connections, can make it hard to see where a business fits in.

Companies have long been able to set up their own Facebook pages, and having a presence there is important if only because users can set up unofficial pages and siphon away traffic in the absence of an authoritative source. The page can function as a supplement to the company website, with product and business information along with regular news updates, plus a built-in bulletin board that offers another way to identify current or potential customers and keep track of their thoughts.

Facebook’s strongest direct competitor, Google+, can claim fewer active users, and its occasionally more advanced social features are still catching up, but it offers full integration with Google’s other services, such as Maps and the search engine itself, which can give a big boost to a business’ visibility. Having a presence on at least one of these services is quickly becoming essential for any comprehensive social media strategy.

It’s also worth remembering the growing number of specialty networks like LinkedIn, which function in much the same way as Facebook and Google but serve more specific audiences. Some of these can safely be ignored, depending on the business: A profile on LinkedIn, for instance, can be invaluable for making professional-to-professional connections, with discussion networks providing a forum for people who may be doing complimentary work in the same industry to discuss potential opportunities the state of the market. But a company LinkedIn profile is far from necessary for, say, a pizza parlor, which has less need for B2B networking.

Managing It All

This can leave a business with quite a lot of different services to track, which is where the dashboard applications come in. These are programs that exist to help manage multiple social media channels. HootSuite, for instance, lets users manage more than a dozen social media accounts from a single website.

The most important part of planning a social media strategy is ensuring consistency in its execution. A good strategy depend on understanding the services available and the options for managing them, but the nature and needs of your business will always be most important of all.

 

ErikErik Owomoyela is a social media consultant and content contributor for AEI.