Consumers these days are engaging with marketers in new and different ways through various online media. We can’t take a step in any direction without colliding with a reference to YouTube, Twitter, FaceBook, Myspace, LinkedIn and others. Many companies have begun to set up their own social sites or to designate an area on their existing Websites specificially to communicate with consumers. This is because there are distinct changes occurring in how society communicates and seeks information. Customers are in control of the business ecosystem, so companies have no choice but to define strategies for customer engagement. The Millenial Generation is the next group of major influencers. They will replace Baby Boomers with their potent purchasing power. Millenials are a native digital generation. They spend more time streaming video and music on the Internet than watching television or listening to the radio. This group of consumers has very different expectations of companies and marketing. The best way to get a pulse on that is to engage with them via social media. There are several key points about social media that every marketer using these vehicles should understand: 1. Every Brand can and should be “Social.” – Conversations about your brand and products are happening everywhere. You need to be a part of the conversation (not to control it, but to add your voice!) 2. Just Get Started! Start by listening. Set up Google Alerts to monitor conversations about your brand or product. Use TweetDeck and set up a brand search to monitor what is going on about your brand or product in the Twitterverse. Then participate in the conversation. If you take the first steps to engage in the conversation you’ll lelarn more about how your brand or product fits into the social media space, and it will help guide the development of any future online programs. 3. Integrated marketing VS Social Media. There is a difference between integrated marketing campaign that includes viral components or onllne/offline coordination and a social media program. A marketing campaign has a short life; it is singular in desired action and is usually focused on demand generation. A social media program is a commitment to engage and communicate with consumers where the consumer wants to communicate. If you start a marketing campaign with social elements versus a social media program, then you have to begin with the end in mind. The worst thing you can do is build a group of fans, friends or followers without a clear strategy after the campaign is completed. 4. Let Your Brand find it’s Own Path. What works for one brand in social media doesn’t necessarily work for another. Make sure you’re authentic and that you’re starting conversations that interest the communities you’re reaching out to. Don’t forget to listen! The customer will let you know what they want to hear. 5. Media Spend versus expenditure of time/money. Companies can spend a lot of money trying to launch a social media program. For the most part, those efforts should be classified as an integrated marketing campaign. The approach and funding of an integrated marketing campaign needs to be in line with the size and scope of the overall marketing budget. Social media programs can be a lot more cost-effective from a budget standpoint, but you need PEOPLE to run them. In many cases you may be trading media dollars for the cost/time required for the people needed to run a program. For example, if you’re at the first step of listening to and engaging in the conversation, there is no cash spend necessary, but you do need to have a person dedicated to scanning conversations, participating and responding. That person needs to be an authentic voice (representative of your company.) 6. Agencies play a great role, but the voice must be that of the company. Remember that the consumer wants to connect with you, not your ad agency. Agencies, on the other hand, can monitor and identify opportunities, but it is the company who must respond– authenticity is the key. 7. If you hire an agency, be sure they know their stuff. Check out their online presence. Is it there? Today agencies are realizing the need for public relations and expertise in social media. There is a glut of newly formed agencies whose focus is on social media. 8. If you’re a corporation and have a legal department, get them involved early. Your legal department can be an ally or a roadblock. Ask legal to help you find solutions to mitigate any risks. 9. Have a Crisis Management Plan. In a world of 24/7 communication, the company that can respond quickly to a crisis will be the one that weather the storm. A good crisis management plan begins with active monitoring to distinguish between customer service issues and potential crises. If there is an issue, it must be responded to immediately. Early action can nip a crisis in the bud.