Technology changes so quickly in this web-based, digital world, and there is a new kid taking on the web. By now most of you have heard of social media. While social media in itself is not exactly a new technology, what is new is the realization that people have acknowledged just how far reaching and effectively we can communicate with this tool.

Social media is alive with conversation and for business owners; this presents both a challenge and an opportunity.

Your reputation is the backbone of your business success. Today with social media, even small issues can tarnish that reputation and hurt your business, if not managed. Your customers are talking; do you know what they are saying? Do you know where they are talking? Every business owner needs to be aware of these conversations, and participate in them, if wanting to stay on top of the possibility of negative complaints and address those issues head-on. The days of dealing with a complaint “quietly” are long gone!

Social media is enabled and powered by the collective voice of many, and if you’re not convinced, just ask Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Colonel Ghadahfi in Libya what they think about social media tools.

The definition of social media is a little vague and there is no hard and fast definition, yet. If you think of traditional media, i.e. newspapers, television and so on, communication occurs on a one-way street. Information is provided but you don’t really have a means to add your comments on the matter. Social media, on the other hand, is a web-based form of media that is a two-way street. You are provided with information, but you can also comment on it directly, and others can comment on your comment, and before you know it, you are engaging in real time conversation.

Most people are very familiar with Facebook and Twitter as a means of connecting with their personal friends and connections, but did you know that these tools are being used more and more as a tool for marketing business?

As a business tool, you can promote your business, communicate with your fan base, but an added bonus is the ability to know what people are saying about your business, be it good, bad or ugly. By paying attention to this feedback, you can distinguish what your clients like or don’t like about your business and you can respond and react accordingly. If your social media strategy is managed properly (read; respond promptly, courteously and appropriately to your clients’ concerns, follow up), you can build up a loyal base of contacts, friends, followers or fans. A loyal fan base is crucial since they will often help promote and defend your business if you ever have controversial comments posted.

But social media is doing more than just giving businesses the ability to keep in touch with customers; it is changing the way business is conducted. Some analysts suggest that social media is forcing companies to be more fluid and rethink how they see their own products and services based on the postings of their customers. If not, businesses can run the risk of very public customer dissatisfaction. Because of the very public nature of this technology, it brings with it a certain transparency. As a result, companies and management will also have to show authenticity, fairness and good faith not only towards customers but also to employees.

On-line reputation management – making sure your reputation is not tarnished – is a consequence of getting on the social media wagon and requires vigilance to ensure that you maintain a healthy and happy customer and employee base.

Social media is a very powerful tool that can be exceptionally beneficial for business marketing. It is clearly having a large impact, not only on business, but also in the political arena due to its very public access. Is it something that would work for your company? It isn’t something you should rush into due to the very far reaching consequences it brings with it. However, with appropriate planning, vigilance and a well-thought out social media strategy, it can provide you with a wide market and excellent insights into how your customers view you and your business.