When social media is part of an integrated communications and marketing strategy, it can help to build better online relationships, manage and strengthen your brand and enhance your overall online position. Done properly, blogs, Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube can be used to create a band of loyal followers.

Let’s face it, when it comes to getting and keeping profitable customers, there are only four basic components:

* Product (your offering — the unique combination of product, service and experience);

* Price (the value that your customer perceives translated into money);

* Distribution (putting your offering within arms’ reach of the customer); and

* Promotion (communicating your offering).

Some marketers go wrong by becoming entrenched in traditional marketing strategies. Many go to the other extreme and become paralysed by the overwhelming number of Internet applications.

The challenge that traditional marketers have is in understanding how to use this new “ingredient” in their marketing mix. Is it like a “meat” or just a “spice?”

Building relationships

Social media’s primary benefit to your communication strategy is its ability to build relationships and communities between individuals who share interests and who would not be brought together except for those interests.

If you play the role of bringing people together around a product, service or interest, you increase your credibility, build your brand and may, in time, increase your profitability by creating a loyal following.

Social media strategies

* Develop a social media strategy that fits your business. Deciding to put together a social media strategy is like drafting the project plan that is in line with your business model. Never copy a strategy from competitors — use it as a base for reference.

* Choose the critical few social media applications. No one says you have to use every single social media application that’s out there. Choose a few and choose carefully. Always ask yourself: Who is my ideal customer? What is important to them when they are buying what I’m selling? And which tool will help them connect with my business in an easy and relevant way?

* Build your brand from the inside out. Think of social media as a giant digital billboard. Treat every post, tweet and comment as an opportunity to build your strength and value around what you offer. Use knowledgeable and active employees to build your brand.

To start, consider adding a blog to your traditional website. Don’t forget to use your logo, company colours, a photograph of yourself or any other branding vehicle. You can customise many of the social media tools to match your image. For Twitter, you can use a photo of yourself in the profile, and use your logo and company colours as a wallpaper when you customise your page.

* Find the right place for social media in your strategy. Right now, social media is a shiny new toy. The real work is in finding the right balance between social media and more traditional marketing tools like your printed materials. The ideal outcome is to have them all working together.

As a business owner, create a LinkedIn profile and use it as a place to connect to customers and collect testimonials. Once you feel comfortable with that, move into Facebook and either create or start a group that is focused on your industry, product or service.

You may consider creating a Twitter profile, and searching and creating a community in your industry. Put your Twitter ID on your business cards and have a space or page on your website with instructions on how to connect with your online communities.

* Go mobile. Many blog platforms offer mobile applications that you can download to your phone. Twitter is designed to be mobile. This gives you the opportunity to report and communicate discreetly in real time.

If you are a salesman, you can document a creative application of your product. If you are a business owner at a conference you can share links, experiences and feedback with your customers or communities. You can inform your customer community about product fixes and improvements or product launches and even new blog posts.