-Interesting new research from Optus confirms that for those still wondering whether social might be important or not - the verdict is in: it already is!

As blogger, journalist and broadcaster @Stilgherrian puts it in today's Technology Spectator: "Australian businesses have passed the tipping point. Using social media [is]...no longer 'will-we won't-we' discussion. The debate is over. Get on with it."

There's always a tipping point in the life of a new business dimension.  The phone, email and the web all went through the will-it-won't it become mainstream debate.  Well increasingly, it seems that Stilgherrian is right - the debate is over and organisations should just get on with it - or get left behind.

"This year what we've seen is not only has that debate been won -- very few organisations are still trying to hold out on how they'll go about social networking  -- but more importantly they're understanding that they need to be actually engaging their customers through social media channels." 

Something very interesting emerged from the report that runs counter to most development trends. While usually, major technology developments have been primarily driven by the desire to cut costs or maintain competitive edge, this trend is different.  As Scott Mason, Director of Fixed Products, Marketing and Strategy for Optus Business is reported to have said, "73 per cent of respondants said [deployment of externally-focussed social media strategies] was to meet customer expectations."

This dovetails with some very interesting research released recently in the UK.  A study by Fishburn Hedges and Eco Research found that some 18 million UK consumers (35%) have used social media to engage with the brands they are interested in.  Moreover, 65 per cent said that it was a better way to communicate with organisations than through a call centre.  So if the bulk of your customer service is set up for the phone - think again, because consumers are moving away already.

Most powerful yet however, is this statistic from a study conducted earlier this year by New York University found that 88 per cent of respondents were "less likely to buy" from companies that didn't engage on social media.

While 59.6 per cent expressed guarded optimism for the future of social-relations between consumers and brands; 32 per cent characterised their satisfaction with the way that companies engage socially as either poor or very poor.  

As always change can take time.  The organisations that will benefit from this new development are the ones that have already tried and tested this new channel and are now busy increasing their investment in that channel.  Some more research, this time conducted by Sensis last year found that one year ago, 66 per cent of large business and 56 per cent of medium sized business expected to increase their social media budgets in 12 months' time.  Those companies are already reacting.

So the opportunity is huge to delight those customers looking to engage socially with the brands they follow, while at the same time - those who do not could lose out; as we said earlier on this blog, customers who engage with companies socially will spend between 20 and 40 per cent more.  So don't delay - get social today!

(Those looking to play catch up could do worse than attend this year's Cloudforce event in Sydney in two weeks' time, where we'll help organisations understand how to take those first and next steps into the social web.)