Your customers are not longer simply the consumers of products, consumers themselves are becoming potential marketers for your product, or on a bad day potential saboteurs. Through the social web people’s ideas and thoughts about your service or product can have a significant impact on the success or failure of your business.

Businesses are no longer in complete control of their products, brands and messages. End-users are taking control. Heading this shift of power are users of the social web – bloggers, micro-bloggers, forum posters, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter users are spreading messages, influencing people, driving or diminishing demand.

Businesses need to identify the online influencers and acknowledge, respect and develop relationships with them in order for their products and brands to thrive. To stay competitive in this ever-changing environment, businesses must learn how to harness these forces to their advantage. Here are five tips for small companies seeking to leverage the power of social media to increase brand awareness and to drive demand for their product or service.

  1.  Identify who the key online influencers are. Do some market research and identify the key online influencers for your product, brand, business or industry. For twitter use Twitalyzer or Klout. Find people who are interested in your products, brand and business and are likely to talk about you in their online conversations. Make a list of these influencers in Twitter and/or Facebook and LinkedIn. Look at their blogs and see if you can find forums and networks where these people are active online.
  2.  Engage with them. Join the conversations that are happening on those sites and online destinations. Persevere, it will take time to get noticed, see what hash tags they use on twitter and use them too. Comment on their blogs, ask them questions, join their groups. Be consistent and participate often, offer information and insights that add value to the conversation.
  3.  Develop relationships with your influencers. It is not enough to simply join the conversation. Meaningful relationships take time to develop particularly with key influencers as there will be many more out there competing for their attention. By interacting with them in a meaningful way by providing useful information and add a little bit of flattery maybe, you may begin to join the inner circle! Building relationships is an important part of social media marketing. The indirect marketing power that influencers are capable of igniting through their own online relationships and discussions can be huge.
  4.  Get your influencers to talk about you. Avoid self-promotion or direct marketing your business and products to influencers. Think of ways of putting your name, product, or services in front of them that show them how your business can benefit them or others. If you have already established a relationship with them and you don’t try to sell to them, but rather offer information and insight, they’re more likely to value what you give to them and share it, particularly if they believe your product or business can benefit their audiences. The objective is to encourage them to take control of the conversation to let it spread for maximum exposure.
  5.  Make sure conversations lead back to you. You should have already established branded destinations across the social web using tools such as a blog, YouTube channel, Twitter profile, Facebook group or page, LinkedIn group, podcast and so on. Make sure all of your social web participation links back to your business blog or website where conversations can get more information or make a purchase.

The key objective is to connect with influencers and to get them talking about and advocating your brand, products and business. You can achieve this by delivering content that adds value and by taking the time to build meaningful relationships with them. If you practise the above successfully you will probably become a key influencer yourself.