Most small- to medium-size businesses have been slow to get on the social media bandwagon, but that is about to change, according to Constant Contact, the online marketing firm.

"In 2013, there will be a significant transition as small businesses approach social media marketing as business-critical daily activity," the company predicts. "Small businesses will begin to see the value these channels bring to their businesses, and learn how to measure it."

Even for larger companies, social media has presented a challenge, says Peter Heffring, CEO of Expion, a social media software management firm. Many have seen social media primarily as a vehicle for promoting awareness of their brand and products. But companies often have found it difficult to develop a business strategy for social media, he says, and, as a result, can flounder when it comes to measuring the results of social media. That is changing, he says, as companies look for ways to tie social media to improvements in their operations and products.

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"The really good companies are not there yet but they are well on their way down that path," says Heffring.

The Web offers a cost-effective way to provide customers with information, notes Chris Dalton, CEO of Acquity Group, an e-commerce and digital marketing company. Dalton cites research that B2B buyers use up to 10 different sources of information to make purchasing decisions. Well-organized websites can provide the rich content that buyers are looking for from manufacturing suppliers.

But manufacturers can't afford to take a passive approach to providing information, nor to offload their communication with customers and potential customers to distributors, says Dalton. Social media offers companies a way to communicate directly with customers and build relationships. 

Social media, however, is not without its risks. An ill-conceived comment on Twitter can spread globally and quickly besmirch a company's reputation. Jeremy Goldman, a social marketing expert and author of Going Social (AMACOM), offers these tips on avoiding social minefields:

  • Do your homework before engaging. "If your brand is going to engage in a discussion about current events, stay abreast of the latest developments on the subject," Goldman advises.
  • Deal positively with negative feedback. If you catch a customer complaining on Twitter about your brand, seize the opportunity to turn that criticism to your advantage. 
  • Make things right. Though it's tempting to pretend they never happened, it's generally better to acknowledge the mistakes you make on your social channel, Goldman counsels. Once you admit a mistake, take action to resolve the situation. 
  • Understand you cannot make everybody happy all the time. Negative customer feedback is inevitable, so develop a policy for making people happy when they are unhappy and for moving the conversation to a less public channel.