With a record-breaking number of participants across a wide range of networks, the social media phenomenon has irrevocably changed the landscape of communication. People are now connected in real time via online communities where they can share thoughts, personal information, experiences and referrals with a wide network of their peers. This provides significant influence to individual voices in the marketplace – and has a major effect on how businesses should market, communicate with prospects and customers, manage their public images and improve their products and services.

Social media has broken the chains of top-down communication from businesses to consumers, and has leveled the playing field. Companies must adopt the peer-to-peer communication style of social media and focus on the needs and interests of their customers (rather than their own) to be successful marketers in this medium.

By delivering content of customer interest and special benefits – as well as being an active “listener” of fans and followers – businesses will enjoy a growing social media following that will deliver positive commentary, increased Web traffic, and both on- and offline referrals.

Following a plan

Sporadic postings to Facebook and Twitter accounts seem disjointed and disorganized. The most effective social media marketing approach is to carefully outline communications with a social media marketing plan.

A well-designed plan includes goals, budget guidelines, competitive research, strategy and a content calendar.

Having a social media marketing plan in place is also essential for measurement. With regular monitoring of the number of followers and quality of interactions, periodic reevaluations of strategies outlined in the plan can be adjusted accordingly.

In addition, a social media policy should be developed to define acceptable online communication practices for staff members who create content. This will ensure compliance with branding guidelines and will serve to prevent conflicts.

Using a comprehensive social media marketing plan as a blueprint, increasing leads, referrals and website traffic can be accomplished by strategically participating in a variety of social media networks.

There are thousands of them out there, but it is critical to select a handful that best reach your customers and target market(s). Typically, the most popular sites – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and even YouTube – are great starting points.

Each social media account should be treated like a separate spoke on a bicycle wheel, driving traffic to the hub – which is your business website. Create additional “spokes” from your business’ general marketing plan, including Google AdWords (and/or other online advertising strategies), search engine optimization and traditional advertising and public relations practices, and integrate consistent messaging to and from these strategies.

Together, these efforts all work to drive traffic to the hub, or website, which will then engage leads and turn them into customers.

Be sure to communicate with customers and prospects via each social media account in a conversational, value-added fashion that isn’t always about your business. Include calls to action in your postings and web links to increase the probability they will be reposted – and answer customer questions and complaints in a timely fashion. Try to flex your creative muscle and design mini-campaigns that offer incentives, like rewards or contests for new ideas, customer-produced videos about your brand, and survey participation.

The ultimate goal is consistent engagement with your brand followers.

Social media marketing fosters business growth when businesses are dedicated to building a true relationship with customers and prospects. By communicating openly and frequently with brand followers, and delivering content and rewards that address their needs and interests, they will reciprocate with brand referrals and increased website traffic – leading to more sales and bigger profit margins.