Social media and conversation marketing have the potential for transforming brands like no other communication methodology ever employed. The reason? It transforms the fundamental nature of the traditional brand/customer relationship. Historically, companies have used traditional media to advertise in a uni-directional way. It used to be all about broadcasting a message – with feedback loops tied chiefly to the ultimate purchase of a company’s product – or worse, no purchase at all.Thanks in part to the transformative impact of online social media, that brand/customer relationship is experiencing a sea-change.. As increasingly informed and savvy consumers begin to demand more transparency and honesty from businesses they support, companies are no longer able to hide behind an ability to fully control the message. Steadily, businesses are now leveraging social media as both an offensive and defensive means to forge new and solidify existing relationships while building trust through transparency. The most successful of these organizations are now doing much more than simply monitoring the consumer pulse… they are engaging and interacting on a real-time basis with existing and potential customers, throughout the entire buying cycle.In some respects, today’s businesses face the same challenges that early marketers experienced with emerging print and electronic advertising mediums, the most important of which is building meaningful and lasting relationships with new and existing customers. The key difference this time around is that successful marketing efforts increasingly hinge on the ability to reciprocate, in authentic ways and real-time ways, with a growing and increasingly sophisticated online consumer audience.That’s why, planning for consumer engagement through social media is an increasingly central consideration for today’s business owners!However, the pitfalls of a poorly or ill-conceived plan are myriad, and social media and conversation marketing by themselves are only a part of an integrated marketing solution. Although it’s important to stress the value of building relationships through social media, it’s incredibly difficult to achieve success when you’re developing those relationships in an unstructured fashion.Thus, social media is not to be performed in a haphazard way. Rather, it works best when applied in a logical sequence using a more structured approach. The mistake that most often leads to frustration and ultimately, abandonment, is not having a plan of attack!Instead of thinking of social media as a freestanding tactic, first consider how you can add social media components into your existing marketing plan. Before you begin any social media campaign, you should think about incorporating these three elements specific to these marketing channels:1. Know what you don’t know. 2. Determine how much time you have to commit to a social media campaign 3. Understand your audience objectives within each social network 4. Dovetailing social media objectives with where your customers “live”Know What You Don’t KnowSocial media and conversation marketing are not ends unto themselves… like traditional marketing, they are simply tools, albeit transformative tools, to building brand, market affinity and sales. And while it may be too much to expect even the wisest “old dogs” to learn to master all the nuances of these “new tricks”, true wisdom stems from surrounding yourself with people who get it. Don’t let fear control, instead become intellectually engaged in ways that leverages your knowledge of your core business, customer and products and work with teams who can help convert your vision into the social media and conversion marketing space.Social Media Time CommitmentIt’s essential to understand how much time you have to devote to social media. The online world is a vastly different place than the traditional advertising space largely due to the lightning fast and highly reciprocal communications the web presents. In terms of product marketing, people now have the ability to share experiences, provide recommendations and promote products and services with speeds unmatched in other forms of media. Positive experiences, as well as bad ones, are shared easily and can make their way through the online landscape with an immediacy never before experienced.As a result, dipping a tentative toe in social media waters without knowing how to swim (or at least tread water) is a prescription for looking at the sky from the bottom of a pool. Nor is it right to spend time developing valuable online relationships, only to appear and disappear like a social media ninja. The best results are often achieved with steady participation, constant communication and engaging interaction with your audience. People will want to hear what you have to say as long as it provides real value to the community.But note, online communities can spot an online poacher from a mile away! Savvy users of social media know what this term means but for those of you who don’t, online poachers are only there for one thing: to use social media merely as a platform to broadcast their marketing messages in much the same manner as they would with traditional media. Don’t fall into this trap. Make sure that you are prepared to get involved in more than a one way communication.Ultimately, the only way to succeed is to make time and commit to an on-going online relationship campaign. Know that once you decide to engage your customers in the virtual world, there should be no turning back.Understanding Audience Objectives Within Each Social Network:What is the audience objective within each social network? The great thing about social networks is the ability to pinpoint with precision special interest groups that dovetail nicely with your company’s mission. But beware the trap of hitting the “right” audience with the “wrong” message.For example, professional networks like LinkedIn are not really the best place to deliver your sales pitch as they often fall on deaf ears. For instance, if your company sells women’s high fashion clothing, you’ll likely miss your mark with a buy now sales pitch on the 1,550+ entertainment groups found on LinkedIn. Here, you’ll be better served offering helpful content relating more to industry news, trends, jobs and advice. On the flip side, Facebook’s 100,000+ entertainment groups offer a tremendous opportunity to find and interact with audiences that may already be talking about your products. This may sound like marketing 101 stuff but no social media plan should be undertaken without understanding network- specific audience objectives.Dovetailing Social Media Objectives with Where Your Customers “Live” This said, where do you go online to find that audience? Social networks, much like traditional marketing channels, do tend to cater to specific audiences. However, unlike offline marketing mediums, social networks require companies to engage with consumers on their own terms. Therefore, it’s important to do some research to find out which social networks are right for your business’ message.At a high level, social networks like LinkedIn focus more on professionals while Faceook and MySpace are more informal and cater to X and Y gen audiences alike. But the real value (and opportunity) with sites like LinkedIn and Facebook rests in the ability to get involved with a variety of mini networks such as Groups, Pages and Causes.Here, businesses can find and interact with consumers in a highly relevant setting. Say your company sells high performance mountain bikes. There are currently an amazing number of Facebook Groups (3,600) devoted to mountain biking and over 35 on LinkedIn! Your company’s target audience is here and might already be talking about your products so why not join in the conversation?Facebook allows companies to create a free Fan Page where your product evangelists can “Become a Fan” and get breaking news, tips and even special Fan discount offers. In addition, Fan Pages can be marketed to other Facebook users much like the way Google’s AdWords paid search service works. If your company doesn’t already have a Facebook Fan Page, it is highly recommended to start one now.The internet marketing era may have only come about in the decade or so but the rate of evolution is, to put it mildly, a revolution. We haven’t yet reached the pinnacle nor can anyone say for sure where social media will be or what role it will play in business communications in the coming years but one thing is certain, having the right plan and committing to its proper execution will place your company at the forefront of the new age of digital communications.