By Delia Paunescu: Assistant Editor

View a pdf of The Follower's Future

With its constant pace, mercurial nature and endless updates, the world of social media can get very overwhelming. By October 2011, 1 minute out of every 5 spent on the internet worldwide was dedicated to social networking. That’s based on data from 1.2 billion people around the globe, or 82 percent of the world’s internet population, according to digital business analysis from comScore.

During that 20 percent of web time spent grabbing the online world by the horns, users may have patted themselves on the back for figuring out Facebook. Then Twitter came along. Just when they’d mastered hashtags, Google came out with Plus. And just as their Tumblr followers started reaching double digits, Pinterest took over the photo feeds. Most haven’t even begun to consider the rising fame of Instagram and the photographers who love it. Yes, social media saw some exciting changes in 2011. But what do these innovations mean for business in 2012? Thanks to sites like Mashable, magazines like Wired, newsletters like VM’s CLICK and our corresponding annual conference, the divide between you and the internet intelligentsia grows less expansive.

In what’s described as a “three-way brand page shootout” on technology site, tech columnist Rafe Needleman concludes that the world’s most popular social networking site is also the way to go where business interaction is concerned. “Facebook is where the power is, but Twitter’s clean design and interaction model makes it an attractive and necessary secondary platform for marketers to work on.” He added, “Google+ doesn’t have the features, reach or clarity to compete with these two power players yet. However, the clear and best course of action for a marketer or brand manager is to establish a presence on each platform. They can even reinforce each other to good effect.” It’s important to note that, according to Needleman, none of these sites offer adequate mobile experiences as each “presents a constrained view when called up on a smartphone.”

This coming year, the prevalence of smartphones is predicted to continue its growth. According to Al DiGuido, CEO of marketing agency Zeta Interactive, in a column for eMarketing & Commerce (eM+C), consumers will spend increasingly more time accessing data on mobile devices, prompting marketers to reshape their websites in order to reap the benefits of this new mobile economy. Consequently, he supposes mobile search and advertising will “ramp up dramatically.”

According to AOL’s social media director Matthew Knell, social networking ultimately works best when you can establish a regular communication cadence with your customers, regardless of the platform. “It’s ok not to be everywhere and to limit yourself based on what your staff is capable of maintaining. It’s a faucet of content—don’t start the tap if you can’t deal with the flow,” he told Vision Monday.

Knell went on to share his opinions with VM on the most popular social media sites out there, in terms of how they can benefit a business.

  • Facebook is great for general purpose information and wide and diverse audiences, especially if you have supporting assets to display. Optimizing your OpenGraph tags will make your content look really attractive in the newsfeed.
  • YouTube is great if you have a regular stream of video content that helps to tell your story in a way plain text can’t. YouTube videos should be entertaining since this is the primary purpose of visits there.
  • Twitter is best if you have breaking or real-time content. Its ephemeral nature really requires you to keep communication constant, though. Otherwise, you’re going to get lost in the shuffle.
  • Tumblr is great if you have a lot of visual assets that tell a story on their own. Photos, videos and short posts should be designed to be shareable and appealing. You may also use a Tumblr as a blog for your site.
  • Instagram is developing a bit of a niche as a place to be creative with photos. If your brand is a very visual one, consider it as a way to tell your brand story using only pictures and filters.
  • More and more, Pinterest is being used to sell products and services. See how other brands are using this new platform and determine what ideas you’d like to adapt.
  • If you’re a physical retail business, devote some time to ensuring your presences contain correct data on Patch, Yelp, Foursquare and Google Places, since these are the places, other than your website or social presences, where people will look for information. Take the time to review any comments and deal with negative ones with transparency and honesty. One bad review can kill a business, but being an active communicator can help to mitigate that risk.
  • Use the new direction of StumbleUpon to help your evergreen content have life. Their new branded channels allow you to curate your “editor’s picks” content.
  • Don’t forget the value of your own blog. Here, you can best manage and own conversations with your customers.

By now, you’ve likely heeded the advice of infinite articles telling you to get online and make your business present in some type of social media. The next step, Knell said, is setting consistent rules and cadence in your communication. “What matters most is how you deal with comments and how often you communicate with your consumers. Communicating in an open, honest and jargon-free way is possible. Make your content relatable to real world events,” he stressed.

At the next level, Knell recommends investing in better analytics and tracking tools in order to gain an understanding of what social traffic does to your site. “How do Facebook and Twitter ads change the user experience? How often are other brands using new platforms like Pinterest and Instagram? And how are larger networks adapting to them?” He added that social media managers should end their expectation that people genuinely care about their brand. “They either have an affinity for your brand, or they don’t. Don’t expect them to parrot your message unless there is free stuff involved. Is that really engagement?”

Ultimately, Knell believes that real engagement is the key to social networking, both now and in the future. As he put it, “We’re going to see a new return to the true ‘social network’ where it really is talking about life and what you’re doing on a human to human basis; talking to people as people and not as imaginary robots.”

Since the optical industry is all about giving people what people need, vision-wise, Vision Monday also reached out to a group of web-savvy industry leaders, asking them to share what they thought should be a part of every social media initiative for the new year. Click here to see what they all agreed are the top must-haves for 2012.