Social media's impact still growing

This is shaping up to be another banner year for social media and a good time for everyone in marketing and PR to pay a lot closer attention to this fast-evolving medium - if they aren't already.

This is shaping up to be another banner year for social media and a good time for everyone in marketing and PR to pay a lot closer attention to this fast-evolving medium - if they aren't already. Social media, loosely defined as consumers creating and sharing content and information online, exploded in 2007. If you've been waiting for this trend to go away, you're going to have a very long wait.

Social media is now appearing in every aspect of society and form of media we consume today. Flip on the TV to the latest presidential debate and networked voters on YouTube ask questions along with Wolf Blitzer and instantaneously share their opinions across the Web. Click onto USAToday.com, and reader reactions to breaking news are displayed in the header with as much prominence as stories written by veteran journalists.

There is little question anymore that social media impacts the news industry. A recent Brodeur study found that 75% of journalists say blogs and other forms of social media help shape editorial coverage. Mainstream media organizations are redefining the way they provide value in this fragmented media landscape by smartly combining citizen perspectives with their trusted brand of journalism.

Social media also permeates every corner of the Internet - not just in the well-known communities of Facebook and MySpace, where a combined 500,000 people join those two sites alone each day. A recent study concluded that 70% of Americans 15 to 34 is actively involved in some form of social networks. When you consider that only one-sixth of the world's population is online today, it's easy to see that social media is really in its infancy.

This global trend has not escaped the attention of forward-thinking companies, many of which are now listening and learning from people around the world. Over the past year, more brands began shifting some of their marcomms and research priorities to focus on this area. It's not just lip service.

"The rise of social media is causing companies to rethink how they allocate marketing dollars," says Jeff Zabin, research fellow at Aberdeen Group, who also predicts that social media is quickly moving from the "fringe to the center."

Consumers are freely providing brands with an endless source of insights about their products, customer service, and competitors. Savvy marketers are identifying where customers and influencers intersect on the Web and are quickly improving their ability to listen, learn, and participate. Richard Feinberg, director of the Center for Customer-Driven Quality at Purdue University hit the nail on the head when he recently stated, "Businesses that don't participate are going to be left behind."

The quickest way to keep pace is to be part of the communities that mean the most to your brand or clients. The industry's heritage in "earning" coverage instead of paying for placements give it a leg up in winning the trust of a new generation of influencers.

The time is more than right to make social media a strategic priority in 2008 by elevating its importance within your organization, listening a lot closer to what's going on and what's being said, educating your employees, and measuring the impact of social media on your brand.

Mike Spataro is a VP with Visible Technologies, a provider of social media technologies and online reputation management.

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