Social networking is more than just a buzzword these days. It's almost an essential tool for interacting with your clients, creating a larger base of customers, and spreading your brand by word of mouth. Even though most companies from large to small have all heard about social networking, very few know what to do with it. There are a lot of ways to abuse social networking, a lot of ways to annoy your customers and turn them off. If you step into the social stratosphere without a careful plan of attack, you could actually make things worse for your company. It's a double edged sword: what will bring you closer to customers can also push you further away from them.
A lot of mistakes are caused primarily by misunderstanding the technology, not quite seeing how the benefits work, or not leveraging it to your favor. One of the key problems is seeing social networking in the same way people view web hits, magazine subscribers or a television audience: bigger is better. The more numbers you have, the bigger your outreach, the better your social network, right?
Wrong. The biggest mistake here is to see numbers of friends/followers/etc as a measure of success. It's not a popularity contest, larger numbers of people following/friending help but it's not the end goal of a good social networking campaign. Mostly because there are millions of spam followers, auto-followers, and other spammy people who just follow anybody. And if you're out to just increase the number of your reach, you're most likely to just bring in the wrong kind of followers. Not customers, not fans, not people you can leverage for word of mouth. Consider these followers/friends to be ghosts, unimportant wraiths. They take up space, sure, but they can't do anything to help you.
That's mostly up to you, but the two major ways to spin the social web into gold is increasing brand awareness and creating greater customer loyalty. The second one is really good, because it can help build buzz and spread word of mouth. The big thing to remember with any of these campaigns is that you can't manufacture customer interest, you can't force people to participate. And it can be frustrating, because what you think is a great idea might not catch on, might not spread through the networks.
There are hundreds of examples of failed attempts where a big business (or movie, tv series, etc) tried to create a big social campaign and it fell flat with a thud. And this is where it gets difficult. It's a fine line between alienating the people you have out there with fake buzz and creating interesting content that people will find cool and pass along. There isn't a magic key into tapping into the social stratosphere. You can't market a meme: you can only be interesting, be engaging, and be sincere. Fake attempts at being cool, tapping into a hot topic, they're usually spotted a mile away and considered a turn off by most social networking ninjas.
Both increasing customer loyalty and spreading brand awareness can be done with simple, non-gimmicky ways. You need to let your existing customers know that you're on a social network, let them know how they can friend or follow you, and give them an incentive to do so. Silly contests with creative giveaways are a good way of achieving this. The more creative the award, the better. It doesn't have to be anything expensive, it should just tie into your product line somehow, and be something that is interesting. Cool, funny, witty or weird go a long way on the internet. Much further than expensive toys. Make sure the contest involves engagement with your brand and your audience: make sure they can easily remember who you are and why.
This is the biggest key to any social networking presence, and it's also the hardest work. You need someone to actively engage your audience. You need daily tweets/posts to your facebook/googleplus stream. You need to respond to any comments, any direct messages, any time a customer mentions your company or your brand. There are many tools that let you monitor various social networking feeds for keywords, make certain you are watching these closely. If someone says something negative about your company, don't fret! This is the internet, and complaints are common. Turn this around, directly engage the customer politely and help them past whatever's giving them a headache. They'll thank you for it later, and you'll have someone who can easily extend the reach of your network and help spread word of mouth in the future.
You also need to read over the people you follow, and engage with them. The more you engage (even if it's just a small thank you response) the bigger social presence you have. You want to impress people, be more than a corporate face. That way, when there is a product launch you can easily harness these supporters to push out the word of mouth. If you don't have people sharing, retweeting, +1ing any of your information, you've only got a very limited reach no matter how many followers/friends/etc you may have.
You have to be careful when you're trying to use social networking to build an audience. You need to actively engage with the people in your network, and you have to make sure you build a quality list of followers. Popularity is all well and good, but if you don't have the right kind of people listening to you, your social network is completely worthless.