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BEST PRACTICE: Six steps to social-ability

"Businesses find it scary," one PR director said, when asked about his firm's attempts to use social media for marketing purposes. And it's easy to see why. It's broad, it's fragmented and it's constantly evolving. Yes, social media isn't for the faint-hearted - yet ignoring it isn't an option.
After talking to several experts in the social media field, here is our six point guide to getting to grips with this complex - yet uniquely powerful - form of marketing. 

1. Decide if social media is right for you
Everybody's doing it - so that means my business should be, right? Not necessarily. Our experts agree that if you're going to use social media, it has to be put through the same rigours as other marketing techniques. Matt Rhodes, head of client services at FreshNetworks, sums it up best when he advises businesses about the perils of "just doing something because it sounds funky."
Just as you wouldn't attend a social networking event that didn't contain any potential clients, you need to ask whether your business prospects are residing in the social media stratosphere. Jennifer Janson, managing director of Six Degrees, says: "The challenge is understanding whether your target audiences use social media, and if so, how? Only then can a brand decide whether to use it as a channel."
That said, all our experts agreed that social media's phenomenal growth means that, chances are, its sprawling tentacles will touch some aspect of your business. A good starting point, then, is a presence on Twitter and LinkedIn - the former being the fastest growing social media network; the latter being the largest of the professional networks. Registration on either is a straightforward process.

2. Consider the options
From blogs to social and business networks through to podcasts, forums and creating your own online community - all come under the broad banner of social media. Confronted with this array of options, many businesses are unsurprisingly overwhelmed. Again, however, it comes back to finding out about the social media habits of your target audience.
Asked for some practical tips on approaching this broad issue, experts agreed on the importance of setting clear objectives. Charles Wells, managing director at social networking agency Kinship Networking, says: "We always take our clients through a number of simple steps. We look at what they are trying to achieve and the problem they are seeking to solve. We also look at the target groups they are reaching out to and ask whether it is possible to reach these through the social networking world. If they can do this through Twitter or Facebook, for example, they may as well do so, as they are free."