Participating in social media is no longer an option for companies. It’s a requirement.

To be fair, I can imagine how the decision makers of companies might feel jumping into these uncomfortable waters. I’ve certainly felt trepidatious about casting my thoughts and business into the seeming abyss that is the Internet.

Since its widespread adoption by the public, there has been little shortage of stories where social media backfires on its participant, but I’ve found that the benefits outweigh the downsides.
As widespread access to high speed internet with a burgeoning smartphone marketplace has transformed communication and information, people participate in new communities where geographical location no longer matters.

Social media isn’t just posting photos of food and places, though those do seem to be consistent characteristics.
People talk. They share stories. It’s one of human beings’ defining characteristics.

Oral and written traditions have shaped humanity. It’s how we know what foods we shouldn’t eat because they’re poisonous, and what animals are easier to domesticate and how to make them so. Today, we continue to warn other humans about what foods are particularly pleasurable, and which ones to avoid at all costs. Restaurants may flourish or shut their doors for good in large part due to this communication.

Social media is the bullhorn opinion of individual experience blasted over invisible waves to hundreds and thousands of people, and for better or worse, companies that fail to adapt and listen to the people face their own extinction.

A famous example of this eradication at the hands of social media is the Arab Spring. Understandably, the toppling of dictators and a series of bad reviews on Yelp! is not an exact comparison. Still, there is a key lesson to be learned.

In both examples, the people engaged one another in dialogue without the knowledge of the people they were speaking against. It united them, and this wave became so strong that it toppled a government. People are powerful when they unite around a common cause, when they exchange ideas and support.

Companies that fail to participate in social media run the risk of being left out of the conversation, and perhaps even worse, entire conversations about them are had without any input from the company.

Participating in this community enables companies to help shape the conversation being had. They can get out in front of issues, they can respond in the way their customers want to have a conversation, even if that means it’s a conversation that takes place in 140 characters or less.

You can tell customers about what is new and exciting to your business. Customers may be listening, and they’ll share whatever creative way a company chooses to promote itself to friends and family. It’s the hybrid advertising and public relations campaign.

So get out there, companies. Engage your customers in ways that are creative and fresh, and play a part in the conversation.

It will happen with you or without you.