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Social media as a promotional tool is officially on the radar screen for U.S. businesses in 2011. And as more consumers are using online tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, this is the year that “marketers have transitioned from cautious engagement to full deployment,” according to industry researcher Emarketer.

The recent report by Debra Aho Williamson goes on to indicate that four out of five U.S. businesses with 100 or more employees will use social media marketing in 2011, up from 42 percent in 2008. Spending is also increasing, as firms “move beyond experimenting to include it in all their marketing planning.”

There’s no denying that as the Internet has evolved it has influenced the way many of us interact with each other, not to mention how we get our news and information. Just consider the following data points:

  • Forty-six percent of Americans say they use websites like Facebook and MySpace, according to a recent Pew research report.
  • Put another way, if Facebook were a country it would be the third largest country in the world behind only China and India, according to Erik Qualman, in his book, “Socialnomics: How social media transforms the way we live and do business.”
  • Twitter, the messaging service that limits posts to 140 characters or less, was projected to have 200 million users by the end of 2010 and is adding 15 million users per month

This is great news, right? These are huge audiences, after all, that firms can communicate with and engage. But now consider some of these more sobering stats:

  • Fifty-percent of business-led and 70 percent of IT-led social media initiatives will fail by 2012, according to Gartner research
  • And while companies will spend more money on social media in 2011, many businesses are increasing budgets for the wrong reasons, according to Williamson’s research. Businesses, caught up with the hype, are spending more based on a gut feeling that they should be doing so, or out of fear of what their competitors are doing, the report concludes.

Clearly the euphoria around social media’s potential should be tempered with concerns about ROI and hype. Social media has been called a marketing game changer because it enables conversations with consumers. That’s a lot different than the old paradigm, like newspapers, which was one-way communication. There are already discussions going on out there, lots of them, about your industry, your competitors, and maybe even your firm. At the very least you need to know what people are saying and actually joining the dialogue could benefit your company.

Ford’s Fiesta Movement took it to the next level and is widely considered a success. The car company held a competition to give away the new Ford Fiesta to social influencers for six months and let them talk up the new car on Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and blogs. The campaign has generated millions of impressions. I don’t know what the campaign cost, but it seems to have achieved Ford’s stated goal of developing buzz and getting feedback from consumers about their product.

On the flip side, Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point” and “Outliers,” wrote in the New Yorker last fall that the 2009 “Twitter revolutions” of Moldova and Iran were largely myth, perpetrated by overzealous digital evangelists who want to attribute everything to their cause, and reporters who weren’t quite skeptical enough.

All of this context means that companies looking to implement social media campaigns in 2011 need to remember that Twitter and other new tools are really just new channels for communication and not an end in themselves. Williamson is right, to be successful, you still must define your audience, figure out the best way to communicate with them, develop a strategic and integrated marketing communications plan, and establish how to measure success.

I’ll be writing regularly about new trends in social media and digital marketing, as it applies to business, and exploring in detail some of the issues raised here today. Send me your ideas, news and comments.

Article also featured in the San Diego Daily Transcript.