Social media is the new “cool kid” on the block. It is only natural that savvy marketers feel it necessary to learn more about social media and get in on the action. But how exactly can brands capitalize on it? When is the right time to jump in? And, after taking the plunge, what are the guidelines for using social media effectively?

The Social Update

By 2014, spending in social media is expected to constitute a higher marketing investment than both e-mail and mobile advertising, growing 34% annually. Why? Advertisers are investing more as the category grows and evolves exponentially on a daily basis. In the past year alone, time spent on social websites has increased 83%. Facebook, the underdog just a few years ago, emerged as the category leader, growing 699% in total minutes spent on the site. By comparison, second place MySpace showed a decrease of 31%. And let’s not forget about Twitter, which is changing the face of social media as other sites slowly incorporate its features in an attempt to appeal to its growing audience. For example, Facebook recently introduced “tagging” of friends mentioned in status updates and launched “Facebook Lite,” a scaled-down version that mimics Twitter’s stream of updates. Twitter is evolving, too, announcing recently that it will allow advertising. It will be interesting to see how consumers respond once this rolls out, and what other tricks these social networking sites have hidden up their sleeves!

Getting Down to Business

Clearly, consumers are flocking to social networking sites. Business executives, on the other hand, are divided. Many fear that social media could be detrimental to employee productivity and believe that it could damage their company’s reputation. Still, many admit that social media could enhance relationships with customers while building brand reputation. In our opinion, tapping into consumer conversations via social networking is a good thing. But there is a definitive line between listening to what the public is saying and actually participating in the conversation.

Many marketers have the same concern – once the wheels are in motion, which direction do they go? Consider below a roadmap to guide you along the way.

DO: Identify the goal, strategy and success measurement.
Before starting a social media campaign, determine why you’re doing it. What do you hope to achieve? The social media strategy should align with your corporate marketing objectives. An internal kick-off meeting with senior executives, as well as those involved in implementation, can help answer this question.

DON’T: “Tweet” on Twitter just to tweet.
Participating in social media that doesn’t align with the brand will only cause confusion. Be selective in choosing social media outlets. It is not necessary to have a presence on every site, just those that support your overall corporate positioning.

DO: Listen.
Listening is a skill and is a fundamental first step towards good social media practice. Take time to monitor what people are already saying about your company or brand so you know where you’re starting.

DON’T: React too quickly.
You might not like what consumers are saying. However, a defensive tone will only make it worse. Be humble. You are not better or more powerful than they are. If you pretend to be, you will lose credibility and your social voice will fall on deaf ears.

DO: Be patient and flexible.
Unlike traditional marketing, social media is specialized communication not meant for the masses. It is more personalized and it takes time to develop. Like any good relationship, establishing your tone and comfort level will not happen instantaneously.

DON’T: Get frustrated if you don’t see immediate results.
The goal of the campaign may not be achieved quickly. Allow for adjustments along the way. The message might not resonate with its intended audience after the first attempt, or even the second.

With the growth in social media participation, finding your voice is an absolute must for most brands. But who is responsible for developing campaigns? After all, it is a form of public relations, creating favorable brand image. However, strong ties to a traditional marketing campaign might point towards the creative agency. Let’s not forget about media agencies, which have continuously been expanding services beyond “paid advertising.” Despite the answer, at the heart of the matter is the client. With intimate knowledge of corporate identity, the client must spearhead social media efforts to ensure appropriate goals are identified and tangible measurements are established. Once this foundation is laid, agencies should work together to build the campaign. Let’s be social!