Many brands have been leveraging social media as part of their communications strategy for several years now.  But our thinking about how to use social media has evolved tremendously, especially during the past 12 months.  And it’s not just the digital natives who get it.

The most senior-level marketers, with 20, 30, or more years in the business, see social media for its true potential – as a catalyst, more than a way to keep the conversation going.  Sure it’s that too, but the idea of putting social media first, ahead of other tried-and-true PR tools and strategies, is fairly new.

That changes everything – from how we think about solving a communications challenge to how we hire and staff a campaign.  For me, 2011 will be remembered as the year that social media went from a layer that gets added to a campaign – almost like frosting to a cake – to become a driving communications strategy, the means to the end.

Today a brainstorm starts with online communities.  We understand not just the power of fans, but how to effectively tap into them and how to measure.  This was evident in many of the high-caliber PRWeek award entries I helped judge earlier this month, and reinforced by an AYTM Marker Research study (December 2011) that found more consumers prefer to receive updates from brands via social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, instead of traditional media.

Importantly, social media is not a quick in-out strategy.  Deploy a video and, as Emeril says, BAM!  But a video does not a campaign make.  It can, however, be a compelling tool in a broader, integrated campaign.  And that’s what it’s really about, isn’t it?  The broader campaign platform and strategy:  from there, all else flows.  At 360, we think of it as our “full circle” approach.

But kicking off that campaign may not be your ‘typical’ big splash, physical event. More and more, social media comes first – with a reveal, some other special access, a video that gets passed, the simultaneous take-over of multiple channels, and more.  Heinz’s introduction of its new ketchup with balsamic vinegar is a great example of a brand leading with social media, in Heinz’s case tapping into its more than 800,000 Facebook fans to start the buzz about a new product.  We did something along those lines when revealing the new Disney Baby collection available at Target stores and fans responded enthusiastically, helping us spread the word.  There are countless success stories and more on the way.

What role will social media play for your brand in 2012?

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