Until recently businesses needed to spend money on marketing and advertising to get in front of their target markets.  (Even something as direct as direct mail marketing had at least printing and mailing costs.)

Usually the more money a company spent on marketing and advertising (hey, what about those Super Bowl TV ads?) the more likely that company could get the most exposure to its target markets and could be better at beating the competition.

Today social media has changed the scale of this competition.  In fact, in many cases the playing field has been leveled.

Used as part of an effective social media strategy, social media participation on sites such as Twitter and Facebook can enable companies to connect with and create two-way relationships with their target markets.

And, yet, in my experience, many companies have not embraced the opportunities on social media.  For example, a new marketing person at a franchisor told me that he “reads about social media all the time” and he knows Twitter is “just for young people.”

Wrong!  Twitter is not just for young people.  His target markets and his competition are probably already on Twitter.  And, by the time he finally is willing to learn about these social media marketing opportunities, it may be too late.  He may have completely lost out.

Look, I understand that people who have spent years using traditional marketing, advertising and publicity are naturally inclined to stick with what they know.  And if a company has a big budget for such promotional activities, there is no reason to give these up.

But there is also no reason not to add social media marketing to the mix.

Here is what you get with social media marketing:

A way to connect directly with individuals in your target market.

And these individuals can alert you to problems on a micro level.  (I send @Staplestweets a private message on Twitter whenever I have a problem at my neighborhood Staples that I think corporate Staples should know about and fix).

Equally important, these individuals can alert you on a micro level to opportunities for new products or services.  (This is the kind of information that in the past you may have paid focus group facilitators a great deal of money to find out for your company.)

Now you can ask the questions yourself to a much larger sample group (provided your company is effectively active in the social media space) and get immediate feedback.

How do you get started on social media?

First, you do NOT just sign up for an account on Twitter and start tweeting.  You spend a little time online learning about effective Twitter use or you hire a coach/consultant to help you.

You do NOT jump onto social media sites without knowing what you are doing.  It is important to remember that you can do harm rather than good to your company’s reputation if you only “push” your sales messages instead of engaging in conversations.

Second, you plan your social media strategy and then decide who in your company will be responsible for carrying out the strategy.

Third, you keep an open mind to being flexible when something you are doing on social media does not seem to be working.  You must be willing to try something else instead of saying no to change “because we already spent money doing things this way.”

What can I guarantee about social media?

The social media space will continually change.  Thus the opportunities for effective marketing on social media sites will continually change.

And there is one thing I can predict although I cannot guarantee it:

By the start of 2013, if your company is not effectively using social media to get in front of your target markets, you are going to be so far behind your competition that you may never be able to catch up.

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Phyllis Zimbler Miller (@ZimblerMiller on Twitter) has an M.B.A. from The Wharton School and her social media marketing company works with clients to take the mystery out of social media marketing.  You can get the company’s free report on Twitter, Facebook and your website at www.MillerMosaicPowerof3.com

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