(Editor’s note: Gary Halliwell is the co-founder of NetProspex. He submitted this story to VentureBeat.)

Social media has become increasingly important to businesses small and large over the past couple of years. It is, however, a field that changes almost constantly. And few companies seem to realize that social media goes far beyond sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

2011 will be just as turbulent, but I’ve put together six trends that should help entrepreneurs make the most of this exciting marketing opportunity.

Social customer service will drive revenueInternet show retailer Zappos grossed over $1 billion in 2009, thanks largely to their ability to integrate Twitter into their customer service processes.  Another large retailer, Best-Buy, scored big in 2010 with Twelpforce. The members of this on-demand customer support team respond to customer complaints on Twitter and leave a trail of searchable information others can reference if they don’t care to Tweet their problem.

Smart companies will do more of this in 2011.

Social marketing will move beyond Facebook and LinkedIn – A recent Harvard research study showed that information and influence travel up to three degrees across a social network. The information you communicate to friends, family and colleagues is often passed on beyond your network – possibly to thousands of people, most of whom you will not even know. Similarly, the information you receive each day may have traveled two or three degrees before it reaches you.

This is where the meat is for social marketers. In our connected world of Tweets, blogs, emails and posts, this information transmission is captured in electronic form, and what we know as “word-of-mouth” in face to face interaction has become “word-of-digital”, and it’s incredibly track-able and useful.

2011 and the years ahead will be a time when marketers start to get away from thinking of social marketing in terms of the limited information posted on Facebook or LinkedIn, and start to figure out how to influence and encourage the transmission of information across the vastly larger real social networks their customers inhabit.

Socially adept companies will align the needs of employees and customers – Social is about “we” – a dimension that few companies are used to operating in. “We” includes the inter-connectedness of customers on the internet, airing complaints and raving about things they like, creating resonance for brands both positive and negative. Just as importantly, and perhaps less intuitively, is that “we” also embraces employees.

I’ll again refer to Zappos, as it achieves customer excellence by ensuring employees and customers are aligned by delivering happiness to both employees and customers. Management knows that reacting to customers in real-time requires employees who are motivated, empowered and creative across the whole organization.

In 2011, we’ll see more companies embrace Zappos’ approach to social as integral, and large corporations relying on their inertia will feel the hot breath of excitement from fully motivated competition.

Millennials will take another step forward into the breach – The shift to greater social connectedness will continue to move forward in 2011.  In 2010, at a recent conference about social media in Boston, not one of the 500 attendees was below the age of 30. As a result, a lot of the discussion about social media was that of fear, uncertainty and doubt.

As younger people begin to turn up at these sorts of conferences, expect the conversation to change into discussions and enthusiasm for the possibilities of social media, as opposed to the threats.  Help is on its way, but it may be too late for larger more static companies where management think social is a cocktail in a bar.

Social will penetrate deeper into company structuresThe Fall 2010 NetProspex Social Business Report analyzed over 2 million contact records of folks within the largest companies in the nation. The trends offered an interesting view into 2011.

Not surprisingly, marketing decision makers had the heaviest use of social media. Interestingly, our study also showed human resources professionals ranking 2nd for social network usage. CEOs, meanwhile, were number 11 on the list, outpaced by office managers and customer service reps. This is a trend that will hopefully reverse, as more CEOs see the power of social media to network and to amplify their thought leadership.

Go live or go home – In his recent book, Real-time Marketing and PR, David Meerman Scott gives many examples of companies that suffer from not reacting in real time to customer issues.  Going “real time means preparing an organization to react to what’s happening in their world, cohesively and adeptly. It requires planning for the future with room for ambiguity and change, and the flexibility to react from the top to the bottom of a company.

Going real time is something most companies, especially large ones, are not geared to do.  Generally, management selection is based on planning, organizational and political skills. Now that customers have the power they do with social communication, in a conversation that is visible to all, Scott’s premise is that creativity and improvisation is required in the real-time culture that customer relations now demand.

The good news is that this pressure will create excellence seen in live performance, but 2011 is still the beginning of painful transition for the majority of business.

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