It’s a tough time to be in business these days. If you haven’t heard already, the days of merely using advertising as a tool for branding is long gone. In its place is the growing popularity of PR to spread brand awareness via various media by spreading brand affirmation messages and brand maintenance campaigns.

And now that too is dying a slow death.

I had the opportunity of meeting three gurus in this arena. I met the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales; the founder of Sim City, Will Wright and the founder of Flickr, Stewart Butterfield; and their thoughts and achievements reaffirm what I have learnt. Further my good friend Willie Lim reinforced this. This is what I learnt:

1. The new social media marketing is causing ripple effects; jumping tracks from online destinations and insidiously making their mark onto the real world. The strategy is swiftly overtaking the PR route. And if you’re not part of the new media (or — gasp — you don’t even know what it is!) you’ll be biting the dust of your competitors who are leveraging on this new strategy pretty soon.

2. Facebook, MySpace and even Twitter are part of the new social media connection; all of them a tool to connect an audience who are already tuned in; which essentially means a targeted audience at your disposal. Use them wisely and you’ll be on your way. Everything is done in a heartbeat, and because everyone is able to dictate what filters through their lens, they are able to decide when to tune out – as in the case of advertising.

3. The new social media method is a more subtle approach. Brands talk to customers as if they are their friends; companies employ bloggers to help spread the message about their product; and that veterinarian you go to has an online forum for pet-lovers. The spreading of message usually comes from someone they trust – a blog they regularly read, or from someone who they trust who have used that brand before. People band together to rally a message and that is a tool more powerful than billion-dollar advertising campaigns or a slickly packaged PR exposure.

The one caveat with using social media marketing is that your product or service has to be as good as you say. The new era brings with it the quick and easy route of dissemination of ideas; if you’re good, they’ll know it and if you’re bad, well, you better start packing before news spreads like wildfire.

The golden rule? Engage your customers; share your knowledge and resources and be open about your ideas. And if you play your cards right, pretty soon you’ll find old customers — and new ones — beating down that path to your door. And if you play it really well, they’ll bring their friends along with them too.

Some of us have started on this social media marketing and I would love to hear from you on this…please give your comments.

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