When the Internet arrived for mass public consumption in the mid-'90s, a whole new world of advertising to and communicating with customers and potential customers cracked open its gates. Companies of all sizes began creating Web sites and putting their products online; some companies, such as Amazon.com and Overstock.com, existed only on the Web.
More recently, we saw blogs, wikis, virtual worlds and other online communities turn customer communications into a two-way street. But perhaps the most disruptive changes have come in the last couple years as social media marketing began in earnest, with companies directly communicating back and forth with their customers online through social media networks like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.
So what does it all mean? If your company isn't yet participating, how do you evaluate it all and decide if you should join in? Where do you begin?
Start right here with this guide to five "must-read" books on social media marketing to help answer your queries, plan your strategy and get you on the road to better communications with your customers.
SocialCorp: Social Media Goes Corporate by Joel Postman(New Riders, Dec. 2008, $US30)
Talk about getting right to the point -- this well-laid-out book is filled with great references and "why didn't I think of that?" ideas for getting your company into the right frame of mind to begin a social media marketing project. Want to know who else is diving into the social media pool? Check out the detailed case studies with companies like U-Haul, Electronic Arts and the American Red Cross.
There are sections on social media ethics, corporate risks, government regulations and more. One key section describes techniques for reaching the right audiences, from creating relationships with popular bloggers to creating social media newsrooms to get your news out to viewers.
Friends with Benefits: A Social Media Marketing Handbook by Darren Barefoot and Julie Szabo(No Starch Press, Nov. 2009, $25)
An easy-to-use A-to-Z guide with some very helpful extras, including a "Damage Control In the Digital Age" chapter on how social media tools can help your company when things go wrong. Remember, at some point things will probably go wrong, and these tips will be nice to have in the back of your mind.
What's also very valuable is that the authors present detailed "how-to" basics for every popular social media platform, from Facebook and MySpace to Twitter and even video-sharing sites like YouTube, to help your corporate communications gain their best audiences. Hints on how to measure your audiences, how to respond to comments left by site visitors and how to find just the right tone for your customer-facing communications are also very useful.
The New Rules of Marketing & PR: How to Use Social Media, Blogs, News Releases, Online Video, and Viral Marketing to Reach Buyers Directly, Second Edition by David Meerman Scott(Wiley Books, Jan. 2010, $20)
To me, a great "how-to" book is one in which I do a lot of yellow highlighting to accentuate important information. In this book, some of the pages are teeming with my yellow ink. Scott presents great can-do ideas with passion and plenty of examples and advice.
His key message: Make your social media marketing efforts shine by transforming your company into an information source for users who are hungry for resources to help them make product buying decisions. Let your readers establish your company as the expert in your market, then reap the benefits by watching them come to you when they are ready to buy.
(Note: This second edition is an extensive revision of Scott's 2008 bestseller, updated for the latest social media trends. Not yet available, it's due to ship in January 2010.)
The Social Factor: Innovate, Ignite, and Win through Mass Collaboration and Social Networking by Maria Azua(IBM Press, Aug. 2009, $27)
This book has one simple goal -- to help companies clearly see how social media tools can bring together customers, employees, partners and others in communities that will make them stronger and more competitive.
If you're looking for a how-to guide on actually using social media tools, this book isn't it. But if you want a clear and ultra-detailed look at how social media marketing ties in with human thinking and behavior, collaborative communications, our mobile society and IT innovations from cloud computing to open source software, then The Social Factor adds some fascinating analyses to the puzzle.
The New Community Rules: Marketing on the Social Web by Tamar Weinberg(O'Reilly, July 2009, $25)
Know what you want to get out of your social media marketing strategy and keep those goals in mind every step of the way. That's the key message in this detailed and authoritative book, which shares loads of examples and great case study anecdotes about companies that have seen their relationships with customers change and improve by communicating back and forth with them online.
Among the valuable tips included are how to determine your resources for the project in dollars and staff time, and how to select just the right mix of blogs, social media sites and other outlets for your company's messages.
Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist who wrote for Computerworld.com from 2000 through 2008. He's now a freelance writer, covering technology news, cool tech gear, open source and more. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/TechManTalking.