For most savvy marketers, social media has grown from a curiosity to a vital component of their online strategy. According to a survey conducted by Regus, nearly 50% of U.S. based businesses use some form of social media to connect with existing and potential customers. But is having a mere presence on social media the same as having a voice? 

The simple answer is "No!" 

Having a presence is like sitting in the corner at a cocktail party and observing the crowd. Sure, you can say you were there, but you will have had little to no impact on the conversation. And it's not just a matter of Tweeting out volumes of words either. Your brand message must communicate authentically and consistently to be effective, to warrant a share of the discussion, to make a lasting impression. To ensure your online success, it's important to follow these common sense guidelines. 

1. Determine your objectives

Before engaging in social media, first determine your goals. Are you trying to inform? Inspire? Educate others about your industry? Announce job openings? Blast a sales special? All of the above? It's important to think before you speak, to develop an overarching goal that you want your social media to serve. In most cases, using it as a sales tool to announce discounts will do little or nothing to advance your company's brand image, and even less to endear yourself in the eyes of potential customers. So think about your motivation for being online, and stay true to that goal.

2. Establish your voice

Once you know your mission, determine the tenor of your conversation. Is it fun and lighthearted? Or is it insightful and revealing? Just like people, companies have personalities. And unless you want to be viewed as a corporate Sybil, it's best to speak with one voice. Don't post a link to an industry specific article, a hilarious YouTube video and then post a Gandhi quote. You will simply appear reactive and incoherent. If you want to use humor, and it fits your brand image, then by all means do so. But remember, your brand is most credible when its congruent with its core message. 

3. Communicate regularly

This is one of the most difficult objectives and also one of the most important. Nothing speaks louder than silence. If you commit to having an ongoing conversation with your customers, you need to be there when they speak with you. Thankfully there are a number of tools available for planning, scheduling and monitoring your social media, services such as HootSuite. But don't just put your social media on cruise control either. It's vital to keep an open ear to hear what others are saying about your company. So while it's great to plan out your updates, but sure to monitor mentions and respond in a timely fashion. 

4. Watch your appearance

This is social media, and so appearance plays an important role. And just as you plan your wardrobe for the week ahead, it's vital to make sure your brand image has a clean, consistent presentation across all social platforms - one that your customers have come to know and expect. What does that mean? It means having matching Twitter, Facebook and YouTube backgrounds with the same company logo, type fonts and colors. it means investing in design so that your online newsletter doesn't look like a ransom note. In short, give your online social media the same attention you would a company brochure or marketing piece. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it also needs to look like you care. Don't be that guy that wears one blue and one black sock to the office. 

5. Measure and evaluate

This is not as rigid as it sounds. We all want something from our social media efforts, e.g. feedback, insights, new leads, top-of-mind-awareness, etc. So whatever you are looking to achieve, set up benchmarks to see if you are achieving these goals. And don't limit is to the number of Likes or followers - look deeper to the number of retweets, customer questions, degree of interaction, etc. Again, refer back to #1 and determine ways to measure if you are in sync with your brand message, your overall mission. 

It's not enough anymore to simply occupy a seat on the social media bus. If you want to extend your company's brand message, it's vital to communicate with a clear, consistent and compelling voice. If you do, you will not only win the continued confidence of your loyal customer base, but gain the attention of potential new clients who share your values. And that type of branding speaks louder than words.