Any effective business marketing strategy involves reaching your audience — clients, customers, residents, donors, members, etc. — as well as your potential audience, right where they live, work and play. Since the advent of the Internet, of course, e-mail, Web sites and blogs have become important parts of the communications strategies of businesses both large and small, even more so since 2006 with the huge growth of “social networking” and “social media.”

Converging and Merging

Mobile phones outnumber computers almost 3-to-1 and are in use from 12 to 24 hours a day, versus about half that many hours for computer usage. The computer and phone networks are converging and merging in such a way as to make the social media sites even more accessible than they already are. Smartly strategized social media marketing accesses all of the avenues of communication and helps companies achieve authenticity, immediacy, connectedness and accountability with recipients of their marketing messages.

There are new social media outlets debuting all the time, but a definable “core” exists already, of several founding social sites and other, unique services. When interconnected these can produce a cohesive online presence that builds awareness of your company’s product and/or brand.

Facebook

This social networking site not only claims some 230 million users, U.S. corporations and small businesses use it specifically to reach certain age groups inexpensively, in a way that is comfortable for these groups. Facebook can be used to announce sales, exclusive-to-Facebook promotions, events and other news to existing and potential customers. You will need to experiment with settings that allow or disallow comments, photo posts and feedback from Fans and Friends.

Allowing comments and other posts by Facebook fans and friends allows you and your company to have direct conversations with them, but as these are viewable by anyone there is an added responsibility. It is recommended that you develop and implement a set of guidelines for content, and define what you consider acceptable Facebook communications and interactions.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is widely considered the most corporate of the social networking sites, and has become a staple for all businesses throughout the country. This is an ideal B2B social networking site, as it emphasizes professional connections, recommendations and experience rather than direct sales and consumers. However, as a general business-building enterprise, it is unmatched among other social sites and is perceived as somewhat “more serious.”

You will also be able to stay abreast of news and events within your industry, a feature not readily available with any other social networking site. Peers, partners and clients can also become actively involved in your profile through Recommendations, posting positive reviews of your product or service based on professional relationships. It is important for you to not only receive recommendations but also give them — this can often lead to recommendations in turn, and keep your firm “top-of-mind” and actively involved in the LinkedIn community.

Twitter

This microblogging site is used across industries by businesses large and small. For many companies, Twitter is proving useful for customer support and service as well as general marketing communications and public relations. You should use Twitter appropriately for each client or prospect — perhaps somewhere between daily and weekly — for keeping customers aware of current events and promotions.

Because of its interactive nature, customer service issues and other comments can be addressed and ameliorated via Twitter. As with Facebook and LinkedIn, this brings with it the need for added vigilance and established guidelines for communication.

YouTube

For firms that are very visually oriented YouTube is a powerful, widely accessible marketing tool. YouTube provides the opportunity to upload videos, as well as create a company profile on the site itself that displays all your uploaded videos, subscribers (YouTube members who subscribe to your channel are notified of your new videos), favorite videos (useful for connecting to more popular videos for increased exposure) and a link back to your Web site.

As with all other social networking sites, YouTube opens you up for public feedback, with even less control than the other sites. There is an option to upload videos as private, but that limits the number of viewers to a mere 25. Comments and ratings can be disabled for videos, as well as deleted on a case-by-case basis, but it does require more upkeep and responsibility than other social sites.

Summary

Whether you call it social networking, social media, new media or relationship marketing, the numbers are simply staggering — at the end of 2009, MySpace and Facebook had over 400 million aggregate users, and the pace is accelerating. Although social marketing is an important consideration, it is not the only one, and should remain a part of a larger, more broadly strategized plan. Some business owners had the notion that a Facebook page and a few “Twitter tweets” would cast a magic spell of some kind, but shortcuts have never existed. Success still takes hard work, although social networking can add a new wrinkle and you might just take to well enough for it to make a real difference in your bottom line. You’ll never know until you try!