Now, as the credit crunch finally begins to bite into company profits, it is vital for brands to be able to reach consumers in more effective and engaging ways, especially when the target consumer audience for the brand is one that has been traditionally hard to reach. For example, brands selling to young consumers are now realizing the impossibility of having “controlled conversations” with a fast moving and hard to reach audience that came of age in the post Web 2.0 landscape.

Making the challenge even harder, social media, a phenomenon that has boomed almost overnight, has to be factored into marketing plans if brands want to be sure of getting on the radar of today’s 18-24 year olds. Social Media Optimization (SMO), which acknowledges a constantly evolving and fragmenting media, is seen by many as the one way to build a viable communications bridge between the brand and the young consumer.

So will it work for your brand?

On a tactical level social media optimization only works for those who thoroughly understand the rapidly changing social media universe and who are willing to make their approach in a compelling but “softly softly” way that won’t cause the recipient of a marketing message to throw the switch on possible dialogue with the brand.

Brand messages need to be specifically optimised for consumption within social media. On the one hand this can be achieved by ensuring web site content is easily linkable and that signposts to their content are visible across the social media landscape. On the other hand it is far more effective perhaps to ensure that the message itself is transportable and therefore easily spread.

On a strategic level SMO reflects a fundamental watershed moment in marketing. It personifies the shift in power from marketer to audience. It’s all about ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’. In other words accepting that it will become increasingly difficult from now on to simply herd consumers to your web site.

With an audience that not only chooses it’s own media path but also authors it’s own media content the brand must have something interesting or relevant to say or it will be ignored. If there was ever a pivotal point when the advertising weary and the brand cynical are in control, signaling an urgent need for true innovation and originality from marketers, it is now.

What exactly is the state of play on the social media scene? Are we going to see a fundamental change in the way that web sites work as a result of the rise in Social Media? Some pundits insist that, in the not-too-distant future, web site ‘containers’ will become unvisited ghost sites as their messages and content get unlocked to exist within and entwined throughout the social media landscape.

So, how do we access this burgeoning media universe?
If search engine optimization is about breaking down crawling barriers to help engines fully index your site, social media optimization is about knocking down site walls so content can be easily found, distributed and shared by the community.

The SMO process may simply mean embedding a "Digg This" button on your site blog or it may mean spending hours to create a piece of compelling content or “linkbait” that could either drive thousands of visitors to your site or have no effect at all. The right “link magnet”, presented at the right time, to the right audience can create huge traffic for your site. The key to social media is your ability to leverage it and that depends on your ability to attract, engage and convert new visitors.

As with SEO, most sites can benefit from some form of SMO but your strategy needs to be designed to compliment the specifics of your site and what you are trying to market. A technology company with a great blog, submitting posts to Digg may reap huge benefits. However, if your Web site specializes in kids clothes, the Digg profile will fall totally outside your demographic. In this scenario, you're probably better of tagging your content at one of the social bookmarking sites or creating a community profile on Flickr.

Without knowing your audience there's no way to offer them a great tool or compelling content. So, consider what will produce the strongest reaction and always take into account what your desired outcome is. For example, are you looking for increased conversions, traffic, links, industry credibility, brand recognition, or something else entirely?

Here are some tips that will help you establish the fundamentals of SMO.

Know your goals and be linkable. One of the quickest ways to make your content more accessible is to allow tags and to add a "Digg This", "Add to" or Technorati chicklet to your Web site and RSS feed.

Make tagging and bookmarking easy and it will it encourage readers to do the hard work for you by submitting you material to their favourite sites. This not only helps to increase readership, but it also builds your community across a site or a number of sites.

Create something unique, compelling and worthy enough of being submitted and linked to. Everybody can do this not just the sexy brands. Because you are a company that sells kitchens, sofas, or bird tables there is no reason why you can’t be submitting linkbait about your product. They don't have to be flashy just good.

Why not try to write something original that will engage the user of your product? For example, those birds tables might sell well off the back of a news piece about the mysterious disappearance of the British Sparrow. Where have 70% of our sparrows gone and why, and how can your bird table help to solve the problem? Or, perhaps writing a viable information piece, for example an Idiot's Guide to the Digital switchover authored by Sky TV or Freeview. The possibilities are literally endless. It just takes thought and a little creativity to generate the collateral.

Don’t spam social media sites. The only way your SMO campaign will be successful is if it's genuine. Don't submit content that doesn't fit with the community you're entering. Sites like Digg or Wikipedia are very good at seeing through blatant self-promotion.

Make sure you're offering a clear benefit to the community, otherwise prepare to be flamed and thrown out on your ear. If you abuse the community then you will experience a backlash that will eradicate any possible good you hoped to achieve for your brand.
Make it personal.

If you're going to submit content to sites like Digg, Reddit or Newsvine, write a personalized email to a dozen or so relevant bloggers before you submit in order to get some early links. Some well researched groundwork will get things moving and have a positive effect on the overall success of the campaign.

Used properly Social Media Optimization has the ability to be a powerful tool for building brand recognition. But it’s vital that you don’t see SMO as a substitute for SEO. The former gives brands useful new tool but it’s still early days to know how effective this will be when compared to more established forms of web marketing. My tip is to keep using the optimization tactics that have proven to be successful so far and to use SMO as an experimental parallel activity just to stay ahead of the curve.

Published on: 12:00AM on 24th November 2008