The World Cup is now upon us and excitement levels are reaching fever pitch across the globe. It is estimated that a billion people will tune in at some stage during the tournament to watch the likes of Messi, Kaka and Drogba light up the magnificent South African stadiums. Many pundits believe (hope?) that this will be the most exciting and memorable World Cup ever staged, and it’s not simply because of the quality of the players on the park. This World Cup is full of firsts.

The first time the tournament has been staged on the African Continent, that 3D broadcast technology has been used and that marketing and broadcasting revenues for a sporting event will top £2bn to give but three. And it will also be the first major sports event that will truly benefit from the digital age.

With the games airing live on cell phones and computers, the World Cup will get more online coverage than any major sporting event ever. Akamai Technologies Inc., estimated to deliver about 20 percent of the world’s Internet traffic, expects World Cup traffic to be two or three times as heavy as that measured during President Barack Obama’s inauguration — thus far, the high point for traffic volume at about 1 terabit, or 1 trillion bits of data, per second.

And this will be the first world cup where every kick, decision, goal and team selection will be debated globally using social media. (Even Sepp Blatter the 74 year old FIFA President has opened his own Twitter account in time for today’s opening ceremony.)

For those of us involved in the technology industry for the past decade, the rise of the phenomenon that is social media is not that surprising. It has long been predicted that the true power of the internet would be harnessed once its users evolved away from passive browsing to actively participating .

In fact you could argue that the template for social media is centuries old. We humans have been gossiping and sharing ideas since evolution. The difference today is that our technology enables us to communicate our messages around the globe, without face to face interaction, instantly.

Gradually social networking will impact on almost every role, in every kind of company. It is no longer a fad and is already changing the rules of the marketplace meaning that companies need to embrace it whether they feel comfortable with it or not.

Boardrooms across the land have often taken a ‘Marmite’ approach to social media – they either love it or hate it. However interacting online has now snowballed to such an extent that it can no longer be dismissed by businesses as a ‘not for me thank you.’

It is estimated that Facebook now has 400 million users and serves 6 million pages per day (a staggering 37.4 trillion per annum). The ‘net’ now houses 126 million blogs and 27.3 million tweets are sent and over 1 billion YouTube videos are viewed on a daily basis. If you thought this was limited to the young, bored or the geek, then think again. The professional networking site LinkedIn now has 65 million members and is growing at a rate of one new member every second.

The statistics are compelling. So, if you want your company to engage with this massive audience, what do you do and how can you make it work for you? The key piece of advice that I can impart is that whilst it might be termed social media and appear to be a completely different world, it is still business and the business rules that apply offline should apply online as well. Corporate risk of litigation, brand protection and legal liabilities still apply in hyperspace!

The first step that companies need to do is to create an holistic social media strategy. They need to decide and be clear on what their objectives are from day one, how they intend to resource and invest in their strategy and whether they are willing to open a two-way dialogue with the outside world. Too many companies have jumped in only to be left bemused by the apparent lack of success they have derived from the exercise. There is a widely held misconception that the domain of social media should be the preserve of the sales and marketing team and that engagement must involve lead generation – this is fundamentally wrong. Social media has the ability to improve processes at all levels and in all departments within an organisation if used properly.

“To listen well is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well and is as essential to all true conversation.”

Nowhere does this old Chinese proverb ring more true than in social media engagement. Don’t dive in, take your time, do your research, understand how other companies are using social media successfully and chose the applications that will serve you best and then determine the ‘tone’ that you wish to adopt. This ‘tone’ is important. It should reflect your organisation’s true personality and should avoid at all costs the ‘me, me, me’ syndrome. You need to talk to the market intelligently and without any marketing speak so people will want to respond. You will need to care about what is being said about your organisation and you will need to be prepared to receive feedback that is negative as well as positive. Above all you must stay consistent and you must persevere. Social media is a daily discipline.

If you use the medium properly you will be able to listen to current customers, new prospects, industry experts and opinion formers and perhaps just as importantly your own employees to ensure your business derives maximum benefit.

Once your strategy is in place, you need to communicate it internally. Draft a corporate social media policy that gives guidelines to employees on how they can best represent their organisation on line. Without making sure your entire staff is on board things can go bad very quickly as Vodafone discovered to its cost recently when an employee tweeted an obscene message via the company’s official Twitter account leading to public outrage. And returning to South Africa, the Netherlands players have been banned from using Twitter during the World Cup after Eljero Elia sparked a racism row with comments on a live streaming video.

Whilst these two examples made the headlines, there is no need for managers to recoil in horror as they imagine what these incidents would have meant for their own organisations. For every toe curling example of bad social media practice there are many thousands of positive stories.

Virgin (again!) received high praise for its ‘Did your driver do a good job today?’ message on the back of its Virgin Wine vans. Rather than the more usual corporate ‘Well driven?’ people were asked to contact the company and provide personal feedback on the driver because ‘There could be something in it for them’ – a perfect example of good business practise through customer engagement and employee reward.

A more jumbo-sized example of this involves hundreds of 5ft fibre glass elephants and London’s largest ever outdoor art festival – the London Elephant Parade. The UK domain names provider Easyspace decided to sponsor one of the elephants that are being displayed around the UK’s capital for the next few weeks. Rather than simply write a sponsorship cheque, Easyspace decided to use social media to maximise its involvement and extend the brand into areas not normally associated with web hosting. Local art students designed the elephant for us, an online campaign to raise awareness of the charitable reason for the Parade was launched, a Facebook page complete with video diary was posted and customers were invited to name the elephant – they chose ‘Cosmos’. All of which has helped change the perception of a brand which traditionally operates in the rather dry IT arena.

Finally the biggest question that is often asked of companies engaged in social media is, how do you measure its value? What is its ROI? The simple answer is that there is no simple answer. To get a community ROI requires work and effort. You have to track down data from a variety of sources some of which you will have no direct control or access to. Obvious data sources include web site analytics, sales lead sources and membership details but you also need to widen your search to include blogs, referrer pages, reviews, videos, fans, tweets and PR rankings, some of which can be measured using tools such as Howsociable?, Omgili and Tweetbeep. The key is recognising that processes must be in place internally to ensure that all data is captured and analysed.

Sometimes though you will just know when something has worked. I leave you with the story of Boeing and a young boy who loves airplanes.

Harry Winsor had sent Boeing a crayon drawing of a plane he had designed with a letter suggesting the company might consider manufacturing it. What he received back was a standard legal letter saying Boeing could not accept unsolicited ideas. Harry’s father, an ad agency executive, recounted all this on his blog and Twitter feed.

Boeing, who had only been using Twitter for two weeks, picked up the tweet and responded admitting “We’re expert at airplanes but novices in social media. We’re learning as we go.”

From being criticised for its original corporate response Boeing turned its mistake into a positive. It has spoken to Harry and promised better internal processes for handling submissions from children.

As Harry’s father said: “It was just so cool to see a company become kind of human.”

And that is what social media is all about.