Social media has grown into a ubiquitous part of modern life. Rarely a day goes by without us hearing about Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like.
These brands are now of great significance for the typical 21st-century consumer, which means they have become very important for businesses too.
So what can firms do to ensure they make the most of this powerful resource?
Don't get left behind
It is crucial for businesses operating in competitive and rapidly evolving marketplaces to ensure they keep up with the latest developments in areas such as social media.
Fail to do this, and your brand could quickly end up looking stale and outmoded.
Companies that don't make the most of the various social media channels on offer today will also be depriving themselves of a potent and affordable promotional tool.
According to research released by the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) in July 2013, four out of five consumers would be more inclined to buy a brand after being exposed to its social media presence.
The findings suggested that every £1 spent on social media returned a potential value of £3.34.
Kristin Brewe, the IAB's director of marketing and communications and chair of the Social Media Council, said: "The IAB study shows that, when trying to create deeper emotional connections with consumers, social media is an essential channel for brands."
Focus on your target market
Having a clearly defined target market is a fundamental requirement for any business, and this becomes particularly important when using social media.
If you have a detailed picture of the audience you are focusing on, you can ensure that every aspect of your social media presence and communications feel relevant to that group.
Julia Bramble, founder of social media consultancy Bramble Buzz, told the Guardian that this should be a very early step, as it will help you determine what sites and platforms you should be using.
She advised businesses to draw up a profile that includes everything they know about their typical customer.
"[Think about] where they live, what their lifestyles are, what their interests are, business wise and outside of business, and that'll give you big clues as to the social networks they're likely to be using," said Ms Bramble.
Any company can set up an account on a social media site, but it takes dedication and awareness of your sector to create a web presence that feels relevant and strikes a chord with your target audience.
Regularly updating your online content is crucial if you want to stay visible in your marketplace.
Having a Facebook page or Twitter account that has not seen any activity for months or even years could result in the opposite of your desired effect, possibly making your brand look dated and unresponsive.
You could start by making sure you are up to date with the latest news and trends in your sector, and sharing anything that catches your eye through social media. If just one person sees your post and consequently feels more engaged with your brand, the effort has been worth it.
Once you have built up a good amount of content on your profile and started to gain some responses and feedback, keep the ball rolling by engaging with your audience.
An example of the potential value of this approach is The Girls Mean Business, a community for women entrepreneurs that offers coaching programmes, webinars, e-books and other resources.
Founder Claire Mitchell told the Guardian that engaging customers by simply asking questions, sharing users' challenges with others, welcoming business advice and posting inspirational quotes made an invaluable contribution to the growth of the brand.
The Girls Mean Business now boasts more than 21,000 Facebook 'likes' from all over the world.
"The Facebook page really took on a life of its own, which was wonderful," said Ms Mitchell.
Incorporate social media into your day-to-day operations
As well as helping you to boost your brand profile and attract potential customers, social media can be a useful tool for improving the inner workings of your business on a day-to-day basis.
In September last year, software provider Citrix released a study indicating that demand for business platforms with 'Facebook-style' networking features was on the increase.
More than 200 senior UK corporate decision-makers were surveyed, nearly half (47 per cent) of whom said their organisations already used some sort of social collaboration technology.
The need to work remotely with partners, customers and third-party employees such as contractors emerged as one of the main reasons for the growing uptake of these tools, along with the recent increase in flexible working.
Introducing social media-style platforms within a business allows users to post status updates, make comments and share files, which could boost operational efficiency and also improve workplace morale and togetherness.
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