With all the talk you hear about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and other social places online - you name it, people talk about them when they mention social media - it wouldn't be too much of a surprise to think that social media is all about Facebook, Twitter and the others.
Yet it's not. What's important isn't the tools and the channels. It's about people and new, simpler and more effective means of connecting with other people.
Why does social media matter to us?
When a consumer makes a purchase, online or offline, that is often the smallest and quickest step he or she takes in the overall purchasing process.
Much of all consumer purchasing behaviour is research - finding out what others think about Brand X, reading product reviews, asking questions on social networks... all the activities that involve active word-of-mouth engagement with other people, especially online.
It's become common for a consumer - someone like you or me - to stand in a shop looking at a product you're interested in buying, and googling it to see what's being said about it online. You're also looking for a good price, better than that of the shop you're in. You might also tweet about it, seeking quick comment from your Twitter community, as part of your decision-making process.
By the time you take the concluding step and actually make a purchase - which could easily be from an online retailer via your mobile device and not from the shop you're physically in at that moment - you've already made decisions and expectations about the brand, shaped and influenced by your peer network and online community.
And the role and influence of the brand owner in the purchasing process? None at all, unless the brand owner has already built up a credible and genuine presence online that shows up in search results, and has created a connection with the consumer.
Welcome to the social web.
The increasing importance of the social web as the means (and the place) that enables people to easily connect with others in their neighbourhood or the other side of the world to talk and share opinions cannot be under-estimated.
It's an unmistakable trend. You only need look around you to see it happening right in front of your eyes.
If you want to be part of your customers' world, a part of their peer network, you have to do that on their terms, not yours. While that can mean a Facebook page, a Twitter handle or a YouTube channel, you ought to take a more strategic look at what's happening online before you make that jump.
For starters, here's your check list:
It's not as difficult as you may imagine if you think yourself into your customer's shoes. It is all about your customer, not about you.
Start with listening. Pay attention to all those online voices and discover what they're saying about you and the things that are important to your business, whatever size it is. You need to know what the conversation is before you join it.
There are simple steps you can easily follow that will not only give you valuable insight into how others see you and what they say about you online but also give you insight and confidence on what your first steps should be.
You can take your first step today. That first step includes asking yourself what you are going to listen for.
For instance, are you listening (monitoring social media, in other words) for reputation management or customer service reasons? Do you want to gather business intelligence and get feedback on your brand? Or are you looking to find conversations you can join so your organization can get exposure in front of new audiences?
And, you need to be clear in your focus:
With those foundational steps taken, you can now make a start:
Welcome to the social web.
Follow Neville Hobson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jangles