There’s no denying that social media has changed the way we communicate. Yes, building relationships is nothing new, the process of connecting with the right people is not some bewildering iteration of new business process. But the delivery methods for those actions – the way we connect – has evolved. As with any evolution, the change is not something that’s happened all of a sudden, we didn’t wake up to a whole new world of connectivity, but slowly, bit-by-bit, it’s taken hold, and really, to ignore or deny this change is a failure on your behalf.

So how has social media changed everything?

First off, social media is completely different to anything that’s come before it. I’ve heard it said that talkback radio was the original social media, which has some truth to it, but really, it’s not in the same ballpark. I mean, sure, you could call in and maybe get onto the radio to voice your opinion on the latest issue. But talkback, or letters to the editor, or any other means of contributing to a wider conversation, all these methods are issue driven (some would even say ‘agenda’ driven). Social media is different. The conversations on social are people driven.

You might, for example, have a problem with your local plumber, a small-time complaint that’s not likely to generate any media interest. They’re not going to care about that if you call up talkback radio – but you can share it on social. Social media is not like any form of media that has come before it – being people driven means everyone can share their thoughts on anything and anyone, any time. And that’s exactly what people are doing.

Those thoughts, that process of sharing, also means the social media can provide the blueprint on how to reach and connect with your audience, as the data, those conversations and discussions, it’s all there for you to see. If you’re looking. As IBM noted recently, 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years, again underlining that the social eco-system is like nothing that’s come before it.

So how do you reach these people?

There’s no definitive answer to this. Sure, there are proven best practices, tested processes, things that work and should be observed. But there’s no universal ‘right way’ to do social media. Case in point – you probably have little-to-no interest in clickbait headlines, pop-culture quizzes and articles with titles like ‘What Kind of Fart Are You?’ But it’s worked for Buzzfeed.

BuzzFeed now gets close to 200 million unique visitors per month and is one of the top 100 sites in the world, according to Alexa. Imagine how valuable that traffic is to advertisers. You may have no interest at all in what they’re serving up, you’d likely advise people considering their own content marketing plan against doing what it is that BuzzFeed does. But they succeed. Because they know their audience. They know what works for them.

Another example – it’s best practice to never post random, unrelated images on your Facebook posts. Even Facebook itself has acknowledged this – users complained about it so much that they updated their algorithm to penalise posts which don’t utilise native link-formatting and opt to show a custom-added image instead. So it’s a bad idea, the image in your posts should directly relate to the content on the other end of the link. Right?

Pedestrian Jobs post

Pedestrian Jobs post more than five job ads per-day on Facebook, all accompanied by very loosely related pop-culture images. They regularly get hundreds, even thousands, of likes, spreading their message well beyond their first-degree connections and networks.

There are many examples of brands doing things in social media that would not be considered best practice, but they succeed because they know what works for them. They know what works for their audiences. If anyone ever says you ‘absolutely, definitely have to do things this way’, I’d call B.S. What works for you won’t necessarily work for everyone else – it’s how well you know YOUR audience that matters.

So how do you get to know your audience?

You listen: Media monitoring has been something of an unspoken goldmine for years – every major corporation and organisation is undertaking some form of media monitoring to understand their audience and inform their strategic efforts. Every single one. And it’s expensive – media monitoring costs have been reported by some organisations to reach up to $US800,000 per month in extreme cases. But access to this info is not a luxury for these businesses, it’s not just ‘good to know’. Media monitoring and media intelligence is at the core of their policy and process development – if you were to ask any one of these organisations if they’d be willing to give up media monitoring, I guarantee the answer would be ‘no’. Monitoring is essential to how they do what they do – even at high cost, it’s critical to maximising their efficiency and effectiveness.

But social media has democratised this process – now, any business, large or small, can undertake media monitoring, can get a guage on sentiment and respond to relevant conversations as required. And what’s more, it can be done at minimal cost. In the modern business landscape, every business needs to be listening. People are on social to be heard – the growing expectation is that your brand will facilitate this.

You contribute: The advent of social, along with the connectedness enabled by advances in wireless technology, has accelerated conversation and word-of-mouth. No purchase decision ever needs to be made without consulting not only Google, but your social graph – and as time goes on, it’s the social graph that’s becoming more important in this equation. That’s why Google’s made a deal with Twitter to index tweets, that’s why Facebook is working to boost it’s own search capabilities. A user-review, written by an unknown entity on a website, is of some value to a potential customer, but a personal endorsement, from someone that person knows and respects, is golden. If your brand isn’t present, isn’t working to be part of the social connection process by contributing to industry conversation or working to help potential customers in their search process, you’re losing out. Maybe not a heap now, maybe not a heap tomorrow, but it is becoming more important. Contributing where conversations are happening is fast becoming a business imperative.

You connect: Employee advocacy is a growing trend, and with good reason – happy employees help spread your brand message online. Every single person is part of their own, unique, social graph, each individual has access and oversight to a totally new set of people and groups. A typical person’s social connection chart looks something like this:

Facebook connections mapped

So, let’s say there’s a conversation happening about your products and services somewhere amongst these connections. You might not see it, you might not know about it. But one of your employees might. Now, if they’re not particularly happy in their job, if they’re not really engaged or interested in what you do, maybe they won’t say anything. But an involved, informed employee, someone who enjoys what they do and how they do it, they’re more likely to speak up on your brand’s behalf. What’s more, those employees are more likely to amplify your brand messages to their friends and followers, and those word-of-mouth connections are now more important, more valuable than ever before. Because they’re no longer restrained by geography. Any person can be a broadcaster, everyone is, essentially, the media. One tweet could cause major damage – but on the flipside, one tweet could lead to worldwide attention for positive reasons. Employee advocacy plays a bigger part because social media empowers every person with more value – each voice is valuable. The more engaged and energetic your staff is about supporting your business cause, the more likely your brand message will reach more people, and lead people to you as a result.

Given these reasons, the future of business, as enabled by social networks, is more than ever about people – about listening, hearing, and providing for your audience and what they need. The future of business can be summed up in a single word: ‘Together’. On all fronts, working together is how we achieve best results.