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Allowing employees to use social media to engage with clients, reach out to potential consumers and keep an ear to the ground in the marketplace has the potential to strengthen brand awareness.Creatas Images/Getty Images

Does your company block employee access to social networking sites in the office? Does it have a Facebook page that is rarely updated? Do you rely on mailing a paper newsletter to get the word out about your products and services?

Answer "yes" to any of the above, and you may as well be operating in the Dark Ages.

These days, having a social media presence – and knowing how to properly use it to generate revenue or improve a company's performance – is becoming an important part of survival in the business world.

Yet many companies have no idea where to begin and what steps they should take to get the most out of social media. Some companies continue to doubt the need for engaging with consumers and potential clients online, and put up barriers to developing a strong social media presence.

"A lot of companies are continuing to use a one-size-fits-all model, with everyone receiving the same content in the same format and by the same channel," says Selena Cameron, vice-president at communications company Hill & Knowlton Canada.

But social networking is here to stay, and in the future it will play an increasingly important role in day-to-day business. For that reason, there is mounting focus on how companies can reap the benefits of social media and change their corporate culture enough to accommodate this shift.

One of the most important elements of success in the area also sounds like the simplest: Create a social media strategy that spells out your company's goals and how to achieve them.

In fact, this is a very challenging aim in a world where most companies have aspects of client engagement spread throughout a number of departments, and no clear lines of responsibility for maintaining Facebook pages or responding to messages on Twitter.

"It's causing organizational chaos internally," says Michael Brito, senior vice-president at communications firm Edelman Digital. "All of a sudden you have kind of a land grab for roles and responsibilities ... think of marketing versus PR versus customer support, they all feel they own the customer experience."

Mr. Brito says companies that use social media effectively have invested plenty of effort to hammer out who is responsible for each aspect of their social media plan, and the governance model used to oversee it.

But even the best-laid plans will result in failure if there's no willingness to take risks and allow employees to embrace creativity in the world of social media.

Unlike many traditional marketing strategies, there is rarely an immediate payoff and no single way to measure the impact of social media on a company's bottom line. As a result, companies must be willing to step outside their comfort zone and invest time and money in a venture that could take months to produce results.

"It's not something you can just flip a switch on," says Jason Falls, CEO of Social Media Explorer, a platform that focuses on information and educational products related to social media and digital marketing. "It takes time to cultivate those relationships."

That doesn't mean executives should throw money at a social media initiative without a clear understanding of the potential benefits. Rather, allowing employees to use social media to engage with clients, reach out to potential consumers and keep an ear to the ground in the marketplace has the potential to strengthen brand awareness and loyalty, as well as drive sales, Mr. Falls says.

"The more you participate in social media – especially if you do some really cool things – the more [you]can extend your awareness," he says.

Mr. Falls notes the example of a restaurant in Baltimore that had long line-ups on Sundays, but lacklustre sales during the week. The owners ran a social media promotion that allowed people who "checked in" the largest number of times at the restaurant during the week using Foursquare to skip the long Sunday brunch line. The restaurant saw a sales increase of nearly 20 per cent in the next three months, Mr. Falls says.

Unlike restaurants or retail outlets selling goods directly to consumers, many organizations offer information to clients and must find different ways to take advantage of social media.

Hill & Knowlton Canada recently launched a new "pulse" service that allows clients to customize the type of information they receive from the company and how it is delivered – either through e-mail, Twitter or an RSS feed.

Not only does this give the clients the option of receiving the information however they want, it also helps the company to better understand how to target certain individuals and build better relationships.

"We feel like it's something that's really going to vault us past our competitors just because it's so unique," Ms. Cameron says.

Yet no matter how engaged certain companies may be online, the intersection of social media and business is still in its infancy, experts say.

"We're definitely at the beginning," Mr. Falls says. "We've just started to scratch the surface on what's possible."