071509_bbk8 (2) Previously, we discussed businesses that leverage social networks to engage their customers and build their brands — some with greater success than others. If you haven’t taken a hard look at social networking platforms in the past couple of years, you could be in for a surprise. And once you learn your way around Facebook (which boasts a population nearly as large as the U.S.’s), Twitter, and the latest generation of micro-blogs and professional networking platforms, you may want to invest more of your marketing budget online – and less on traditional media.

According to Steve Ennen, managing director of the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative, “A full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal costs about $300,000. It takes a lot less money for an online media campaign. I can increase reach, exposure and frequency through emerging platforms that I could not do in traditional platforms.” This could offer smaller businesses an opportunity, under the right circumstances, to preserve some cash that might normally go to advertising and marketing budgets.

The Time Is Ripe, but There Are Dangers

Ennen believes that it’s a better time to advertise online today than three years ago. “More people are online,” he says. “Demographics are across all age categories. The ubiquity has exponentially increased with broadband, wireless and smart phones. It’s on a global scale. It’s not just that people in Los Angeles or New York City are engaged, but people everywhere, from every walk of life. Twitter wasn’t even around three years ago. It’s a riper time, but there are more dangers.”

The biggest dangers? “Not knowing your users,” says Ennen. “Going into it without the appropriate value proposition for the people with whom you want to communicate. Misusing the platform is another a big danger.”

For example, Burger King offered coupons for their “Angry Whopper” to Facebook users if they de-friended 10 Facebook friends. Burger King sent messages to those who were de-friended, informing them that they were worth less than a hamburger to their former friend. “The idea was to create more buzz,” says Ennen, but Burger King’s effort backfired. “It harmed relationships between users. There was a violation of trust. It irritated people. One pregnant woman de-friended a lifelong friend. It ruined their relationship. It’s a great example of ways that you can abuse the platforms. More than abuse, it’s not being savvy enough.”

Cutting through the Digital Din

On the flip side, Ennen says, “Dell is using Twitter pretty well for promotions. If I am using Twitter, following Dell, and I see they are offering money off on a printer, for example, I see it, I take advantage and I feel good.”

Before you jump into social networking as a marketing tool, Ennen recommends doing a lot of listening. “Examine the environment,” he says. “And then determine a viable strategy. Just because Twitter is there, do I need to be on Twitter?” Not necessarily. It depends on what kind of company you are, what kind of people you are trying to reach and what you are trying to do for them. “As you step into this world, you should keep listening for real-time feedback,” Ennen adds. “Platforms don’t exist in a vacuum. All these platforms are connected. It’s a network. Things can roll positively across a network with economies of scale, and they can roll backward too.”

Bottom line: Have a clear strategy, says Ennen. “Have a way to measure, so you know it’s working. I can’t emphasize measurement and data enough. You can’t just let creative run with an idea. It’s about measuring effectively to cut through the digital din created by buzzwords.”