Marketers must look to the Web for new ways of finding customers and communicating with them, rather than at them. From Facebook and YouTube to blogs and Twitter-ing, social media is the most promising new way to reach customers. If it isn’t already, your company needs to start engaging its customers and building customer communities in order to maximise profits in a time of marketing confusion.

Rather than broadcasting messages to audiences, savvy marketers are encouraging participation in social networks to which people want to belong, where dialogue with customers and between customers can flourish. Social marketing is extending the reach of existing corporate messages online by building relationships with relevant audiences including intermediaries, stakeholders, and key influencers such as journalists and bloggers. Social networking sites, video sites and blogs are great for company branding. In fact, your whole online presence can serve as a branding mechanism.

Social marketing provides thought leadership and credibility, increasing your company’s visibility as the experts in its remit within the online space, and provides an additional, low-barrier method for audiences to interact with your company to provide feedback, seek help and suggest ideas. Above all, social marketing demonstrates commitment to and understanding of digital channels with exemplary use of emerging channels and provides an informal, ‘human’ voice of your company to promote comprehension of and engagement with your corporate messages.

With the growing popularity of social media, many businesses feel they need to integrate it into their marketing mix, but most aren’t sure where to start or how to develop a plan. Social media is useful for many types of organisations, whether it’s a big brand or small business. Using social media correctly helps your company to engage audiences in new ways, be more personable, develop new connections, and maintain the ones you have.

What do you want to accomplish with your business and what role will social media play in helping you to accomplish your objectives? This is what you want to measure. This becomes your strategy. Some companies might want to dive into social media because of all the buzz and it seems like the right thing to do. But without a plan, you won’t get the results you seek.

Building relationships

One key benefit of social media is building relationships with your clients. People are tired of being ‘profiled’ as a ‘consumer.’ Social media dampens the impersonal corporate edge and enforces a real, personable voice. More companies are realising the importance of cultivating real, organic relationships with their audience. Those who aren’t utilising social media are missing out on a powerful tool that provides invaluable insight into the wants and needs of their audience.

This then becomes your strategy. To ‘listen’ and identify the wants and needs of your audience and then use social media as a tool to join the conversation, develop a trusting relationship, and provide something of value for that audience. It’s up to you to be innovative on how you engage your audience with the many social media tools available. If you come in with the attitude of contributing something of value to the conversation rather than plugging yourself all of the time, you’re much more likely to find success with social media.

Social media has taken the institutional control of marketing and put it in the hands of consumers or the general public. This is important because, with technology being ubiquitous and available to all, we’ve been given the tools to carry on conversations and discuss our views and vote for our favourite content online. We now form many of our opinions and impressions from others we come in contact with online.

Understanding this principle is an important factor in building a social media strategy. Essentially, traditional ways of thinking won’t necessarily work. Instead of studying demographics about your audience, you need to get out there and talk with them. You need to get involved with the conversations that are already happening online.

Research and listen

You need to determine who your audience is and where they are online. Blogs are a great place to start looking. Technorati is a good tool to help us find blogs related to your search queries. Twitter is another place to gain insight into conversations that are happening right now. Twitscoop is one of many tools that will monitor and search for trending topics on Twitter.

After you’ve identified where your audience is, you can then start listening to what they’re saying. What are their issues, opinions, and needs? How does this information fit with your value proposition? Understanding this information will help you determine how to best contribute to the conversation and how best to make a contribution. If you are a manufacturer of desktop printers, you should be participating in discussions about printing costs and multi-function devices. You then need to find out which sites have the strongest influencers?they possess the authority, respect, or experience to shape people’s opinions.

Identify goals and objectives

In addition to company goals, you must also consider your audience’s goals. You’ll get much farther with social media marketing if you offer something of value first. Giving people something of value earns you the right to plug yourself a little. Draw a line on a piece of paper and write down your business goals on one side and your audience’s goals on the other.

Develop your plan

Map out your approach to delivering your products or services to satisfy the needs of your audience. Will you reach out and leverage influentials? Will you provide free material or samples? How will it be delivered? Maybe you have products that are environmentally friendly. Will you moderate and lead a conversation about environmental issues and become a leader? There are many creative ways to approach your audience but you need to be innovative.

Social media tools

There are many social media tools that can help you reach your audience. One of the most effective is to build a blog and/or use a forum. How about developing educational material with video and delivering it on YouTube? You should also use Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn as social media tools. There are many to choose from, and you aren’t limited to just one. Critical here is that you have solid, relevant content on your main Web site that you can lead visitors to when they want more detailed information. You can easily negate your social media marketing efforts by leading visitors to a Web site that delivers a poor experience.

Measure, measure, measure

After you’ve done a good job setting goals and defining your objectives, it’s time to see if you’ve met those goals. Defining metrics for success upfront will make the measuring process go more smoothly. There are many tools to choose from. Paid tools include Scoutlabs, Radian6, Trackur. Free tools include Social Mention, TweetReach, and Google Analytics for seeing where visitors are coming from. These tools can also help with researching and listening.

Measuring can be a challenge because the medium is conversational in nature. You can measure the number of your followers, or those who are participating in the conversation. You can measure Web traffic increases due to your social media efforts. Whatever your measuring mechanism, you need to do it often?pick a regular time and stick with it.

Assess and course correct

Good metrics will show you what is and isn’t working. You shouldn’t be afraid to abandon a specific tactic or social media tool if it doesn’t work. You should try a different one and see if you get better results. What works for one company might not work for your company. Certain tools will emerge as better performers depending on your industry, product, or service. Also, new tools are coming out every day that might be more efficient at getting the job done.