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Time social media grew up: Jim Hawker, Threepipe PR

After years as 'the next big thing' and a 'nice but optional extra', 2012 will be the year in which socialmedia programmes become an essential, mainstream form of PR activity for brands of all types.

I've lost count of the number of debates I've heard on which agency or marketing discipline should 'own' social media. It's all getting a bit boring. The truth is that social media is now integral to any brand's relationship with its audience, so it's time we stopped worrying about who it belongs to, or should be doing it, and started focusing on making sure it's working.

Understandably, there has been a race by brands to generate as many Facebook likes, Twitter followers and YouTube views as possible, but with little analysis of what this activity is actually delivering, or how engaged these consumers really are with the brands they follow.

That needs to change, and I think 2012 will be the year that social media really grows up. From our perspective, 2010 was the year of brands talking about social media and dipping a largely experimental toe in the water, whereas in 2011 we have been working with clients to implement some truly effective programmes with real commercial returns. Armed with the learnings and positive outcomes of these campaigns, 2012 should be the year that marketers can confidently demonstrate the commercial case for investing in social media and putting it at the heart of a wider communications strategy, instead of viewing it as a 'nice to have' add-on.

While there is a place for standalone social-media campaigns, the power of these platforms is fully unleashed only when integrated with the full marketing mix including traditional media coverage, events, sponsorship, SEO and above-the-line campaigns.

Social media provides an incredible opportunity for brands to build direct relationships with their audience, but, combined with the right piece of influential editorial coverage, the effect is massively more powerful, leading to a genuine shift in brand perception, trust and behaviour.

We are now able to directly and confidently demonstrate the commercial impact that a social-media programme can make, which has led to social-media planning becoming integral to our 2012 planning sessions with clients. Obviously, this applies to consumer-facing brands, but we are also increasingly working with business-to-business organisations, helping them to use social media to reach and influence specific, targeted audiences, generate sales leads and manage reputation.

The organisations that we meet use social media in a whole host of ways. Some view it as an extension of their customer services, others as the primary online destination for talking to consumers. Many are still hesitant about using it at all.

If you're at this stage and not sure where to start, think about what exactly you want to achieve before you set up a Facebook page or Twitter account. It's far better to spend the time defining the objectives and listening to the needs of the customer before jumping in without a defined strategy. This will help you decide which channels are right, what content you will create or share, how you will reply to comments and which influencers will help you reach your audience.

You also need to decide who will be responsible for the day-to-day management of your social media profiles. Some organisations may be best-placed to manage these internally, with strategic input and content ideas coming from an agency. Others may elect to outsource everything. In our experience, both can work with the right planning and approach, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Social media has also democratised communication. Brands with little or no above-the-line budget can reach millions of people with the right creative concept, executed well. This takes away some of the traditional advantages of the biggest brands, forcing them to innovate just as much as their smaller rivals.

Why have I spent the whole of an essay on PR talking about social media? Quite simply because this is public relations in its truest sense: two-way conversations between organisations and people.

People in our industry are used to conversing and persuading, not shouting, to get their message across. We have also grown up having to create stories and content that deliver brand messages in a subtle, believable way across multiple platforms and influencing the influencers.

Social media is PR.

From Marketing's PR essays supplement October 2011

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