While Facebook has turned into a regular part of many people’s lives, Twitter has succeeded in fermenting a social media revolution. Given their all-pervasive presence, it’s strange to think that the major social networking sites have only been in existence for a little over five years (seven, in the case of Facebook).

In that time, social media sites have become a truly global phenomenon and, aside from their obvious social aspects, businesses are increasingly tapping into their potential as marketing, PR and customer feedback tools.

But before dipping your toes into the sea of benefits that social media marketing offers, there are a few things that will keep you afloat.

Getting the most out of the social media

You might not have the slightest interest in growing virtual crops on FarmVille or in what a vague acquaintance had for breakfast this morning. Social media sites can sometimes be time vortices for unmotivated or unpoliced employees but they can also be massively beneficial to businesses both large and small.

In a survey conducted by market research company Ad-ology, the owners of 1,100 small businesses said the ability to keep up with developments within their field, to generate leads and to monitor the online conversation about their businesses were the greatest benefits of social media marketing.

Its effectiveness may be difficult to measure in terms of direct sales earned but it is invaluable in raising and monitoring brand reputation, garnering feedback and other aspects of PR.

Being wary of certain risks

There are, however, certain risks involved in taking your business to the social media, especially where unfamiliar languages and cultures are involved.

A study by CNET found that employees could easily bypass the security guidelines and safeguards set up by the company’s IT and law departments. This could lead to increased vulnerability to malware, lack of productivity and loss of reputation caused by unauthorised discussion of the business’s workings and services.

Any business-related forays into the social media world should therefore be carefully monitored at all times.

Finding the best platforms to use

All the major social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn – have their tendrils in markets around the globe. In many regions, however, local competitors have a greater market share. They might not always mean much outside their own spheres of influence, but within them they’re huge.

Cyworld, for example, is massive in its native South Korea but, aside from footholds in China and Vietnam, has failed to really establish itself elsewhere. In China, the social media website Qzone and its related instant messaging service QQ are vast, with parent company Tencent claiming there were a staggering 636.6 million active QQ accounts as of September 2010.

In Japan Mixi has a market share of around 80% (around 30 million users) but Yahoo! JAPAN is also popular there.

Latin America has a rapidly emerging social media environment with massive year-on-year growth. Orkut is the biggest platform in the market, with eight out of ten online visitors in Brazil.

Researching different social media habits

Various user trends have been noted in different markets. In Asia, social networking is highly mobile, with many users accessing social networks through hand-held devices. Australia has one of the highest levels of social media engagement in the world, with users spending an average of 6 hours and 52 minutes a month, while Brazilians are far more likely to use social networks and blogs than the average global Internet user.

You certainly shouldn’t neglect familiar sites such as Facebook and Twitter when reaching out to different cultures. All the Western big hitters have different settings and localised content for various markets but a little research will reveal the sites and user trends that are most pertinent to you.

Getting your message across

Machine translation can offer a cheap option when communicating across different cultures and languages but they are prone to contextual errors. If at all possible, the assistance of a native speaking translator is imperative. This will help avoid technical translation errors but will also allow you to adapt your message rather than offer a straight, word-for-word translation. Social media marketing is all about effective communication and having a native speaker onboard will really help you to speak the language of your customers.