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Choose the Right Social Platform For Your Business

You know your business needs to engage online. Here a few things to consider before you plunge into the social pool.

With Facebook on track to reach one billion users, reports that 75% of marketers will increase their social media spending this year, and predictions that social media will transform TV and influence the presidential election, it's no wonder 2012 has been touted as the "Year of Social Media."Hyperbolic headlines like these might convince you that if you don't incorporate social media into your business, you'll soon be out of business. But before you race to register a Twitter account or create a Facebook fan page, you should check a few of your assumptions. Is it really necessary for you to be part of these two social networks? Sure, they're the most popular platforms and likely your competitors are already using them -- both compelling reasons -- but that doesn't mean either of them is the best option for you.

There's a universe of social media platforms available with a variety of capabilities, some of which will be more suited to your business needs than others. Effective social media strategies take money and resources, two things most businesses today have in short supply. And despite the cacophony of voices that would have you believe that 100,000 Facebook followers or a steady diet of a half-dozen Tweets a day is the magic bullet for all your marketing ills, marketing may in fact be the least valuable -- and most unnecessarily limiting -- social media tactic for your business. To maximize your investment, you need to decide what the best use of social media is for you. Here are a few things for you to consider.

Define Your Needs

We've all heard about Social Media's much-trumpeted power to create relationships with consumers and build brand awareness. Indeed, social media has opened up a wealth of marketing opportunities. But before you plunge into the social pool, you need to decide how relevant these objectives are to your business. What if your needs are more modest? Maybe you just want to increase foot traffic to your store. Perhaps your biggest challenge has nothing to do with your customers, but rather your company's communication is vexed by the geographical gulf between offices. The point is Social Media is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and clarifying your needs if the first step to tailoring it to your business.

Decide How You Will Use It

While all social media shares the common goal of connecting you with others, different types of social media have different functions, so it makes sense to decide how you're going to use it before you choose a platform. Do you want to foster camaraderie and facilitate collaboration between remote workers? Are you trying to elicit feedback from your customers about your services? Do you want to bolster your recruiting efforts? Buttoning down how you plan to employ social media in your business operations will narrow the field of viable platforms considerably.

Identify Your Audience

It seems obvious, but you have to know whom you're going to be talking to. A company trying to engage with as many consumers as possible is going is likely not going to use the same tool -- or at least use it in the same way -- as an SMB owner who wants to connect with his contractors. Likewise a salesperson who wants a better way to manage client relationships will use social differently than a marketer tracking customer interactions. In addition to different features, each social platform has its own culture, tone and types of users, so its critical to be clear about with whom you want to connect so you can choose the appropriate channel to best leverage your social efforts.

Choose the Right Tool

With these questions answered, you're better armed to evaluate the myriad social media offerings and strategically select the appropriate platform (or platforms) to meet your business requirements.

Say you want to bring together siloed business units, enable your staff to share information in real time or encourage your remote employees to bond with those in the home office. A private, scalable social network like Yammer that lets you securely share sensitive information is more appropriate than a public network like Twitter.

Maybe your business priority is project management and facilitating collaboration between internal staff and outside contractors. In that case, creating a Wiki or using a platform such as Huddle that can be easily integrated into your enterprise may be the right solution for you.

If you're a merchant that relies on local patronage, you'll be better served by a location-based service like Foursquare or Gowalla, whose ability to reward check-ins with discounts and other rewards generates walk-in traffic in a way that blasting your marketing message to millions of Facebook users can't.

It should be clear at this point that there is no one correct answer. And as the one constant in both business and social media is change, you ultimately should be conversant in a variety of platforms so you can easily adapt as the landscape -- and your needs -- evolve.

We want to hear from you. What social tools do you use for your business? How do you use them?

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