words by Jasmine Marshall // from the April issue of 904 Magazine

The year is 2007 and social networking sites have more or less divided the Internet into “adaptors” and “nonbelievers.” In one camp, bloggers swear by the practice of branding and non-stop status updates; in the other, professors advise their students not to look into social media job titles that may not exist in five years; Business professionals consider them useless. At the time, social media seemed exciting, yet frivolous.

Fast forward to 2015, when social media firms and creative agencies are legitimate organizations. For a business, “We don’t have a Facebook page” is now as ludicrous a statement as “We don’t have a phone number,” and it’s not terribly uncommon for self-help books like Twitter For Dummies to litter workplace bookshelves and cubicles.

Networking sites are considered a necessity but social media, for all its worth, is still as mystifying as ever for many corporate entities. Under the impression that participation alone is enough, many businesses opt to meet a quota for posts or tweets or maintain a constant presence online. To be sure, there’s some truth to these bits of advice; as with most things, there is a time and a place for a post or tweet and being active and consistent with updates is considered essential.

But the truth is, according to Dalton Agency’s social media strategist Heather Smith, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to mastering social media. In fact, the only universal “rule” is to pay attention. With that in mind, industry insiders offer tips for making the most of social media.

Take advantage of insights

“A lot of businesses don’t even harness the amount of insight and analyses they can get from social channels,” Smith says. “It’s really important to pay attention to those things to know if what you’re doing is actually working—if it’s even worthwhile.”

Analyzing data is what helps businesses and companies stay considerate of their demographic. Understanding insights makes it easier to adjust messaging and create for a more engaging experience. The ways the audience interacts with a brand or business—the feedback, ideas and perspectives they offer—is what helps with decision-making and communication.

“At that point, you’re not just pushing out messaging, you’re building a relationship with your audience,” Smith says. “It’s more symbiotic, and it makes a company appear more human.”

Choose the right platform

Likewise, the choice of platform is an important decision to make. While it may be tempting to try to manage accounts on every popular social media network, there’s no point in pushing messages in places without the right reach.

Smith says that it’s important not to just push messaging anywhere—selecting the right platforms will allow for a more meaningful experience. Utilize secondary research sites like PEW to find useful demographics.

Actively engage with the audience

The practice of communicating with followers and initiating discussion is another component of social media that cannot be overstated.

Smith warns that successful engagement is about more than just a “Like” or a “Follow.” The true measure of any company, brand or business’ success is how much their audience genuinely cares about what these businesses have to say.

Develop strategies, goals and objectives for each platform

Not having a message or a plan is often what makes social media seem so overwhelming. It may not seem necessary, but the audience will be able to tell when a business doesn’t have a plan. Content needs to be tailored differently for the trends of every platform, and each message needs to have a purpose.

“Ask yourself what you’re trying to say before you say it,” Smith says. “Ask yourself who you’re trying to reach.”

Understand the risks and plan for a crisis

“There are always risks, especially when people can have a portal to comment,” Smith warns. “But don’t look at it as a risk. Look at it as an opportunity—an opportunity for you to communicate and see why your audience is frustrated or happy. Use it as a tool. Don’t think of it as something scary and out of your control.”

Understand the consumer and the platform

Comprehension eliminates irrelevant messaging and overwhelming content. Most of all, understanding the consumer will allow for more feedback and interactions, the most valuable things a business can be offered. Feedback creates the opportunity for businesses to identify issues and consumers they might not have otherwise been aware of, and provides an instantaneous, inexpensive way to get at eye level with their audiences.

“If you think public relations is important then you need to think social media is important as well,” says Smith. “Public perception is something that you can massage—you can’t necessarily control it, but having a presence where someone can go and share their feelings and being able to respond in real time makes it apparent that you care.”