Don’t be embarrassed. We’ve all tried to sneak in a quick tweet during a meeting. Who hasn’t taken a break from their workday to check what their friends are posting on Facebook? And if you don’t post a picture of your lunch on Instagram, who will believe you ate anything?

Social media can be so much fun to use in our personal lives that it can feel like a guilty pleasure when we use it at work. Smart companies, however, have learned that the same qualities that encourage us all to consume (and contribute) social content can create an equally dynamic and compelling experience for their customers and employees.

Although businesses may have first capitalized on the potential of social media in their marketing efforts — and many continue to do so — that’s not the only area where these platforms can have a major impact. Some companies are actively selling (or at least finding customers and nurturing sale opportunities) on social media. For businesses in almost every market or sector, meanwhile, social media is quickly becoming one of the most popular channels for customer service issues other than the phone or email.

The challenging aspect of having your company use social media is that the rules sometimes seem to be made up as we go along. Until recently, there weren’t a lot of formal training programs to educate small and medium-sized business owners on what they should post, how they should respond to comments and how to tie it all back to their business objectives. That sometimes leads to a tendency for firms to want to “wait it out” and hope that other businesses will take the lead and make the kind of early mistakes they can avoid.

This rarely works out as a strategy, however, because customers are increasingly expecting the companies they deal with to have a presence on major social platforms. When they post something about a company, they want a timely response. And if you leave competitors to build up a following on a particular service first, playing catchup afterwards is bound to be a painful experience.

Instead, brainstorm all the ways social media could have an impact on the areas that matter most to your business. We’re happy to get the ball rolling:
 

1. Tune into water cooler conversations from wherever you are


For sales, marketing and service teams, what customers are saying on social matters. This includes whether they’re mentioning your firm by name or not. Don’t forget to listen for sentiment about their needs, aspirations and challenges. Look at the content they reshare to their own followers, and study why it resonated with them. Notice whose posts they comment on, and think about how they influence them. All this is data that can feed sales conversations, marketing campaigns and provide signals about the kind of service issues they may bring forward.
 

2. Create a delivery service for all your best stories


It’s the classic lament in marketing — why do we create all this content if no one is looking at it? While things like search engine optimization remain important, social media channels can be a fantastic way to get more attention to your blog posts, eBooks, infographics and videos, especially when you make use of hashtags that associate them with topics your customers care about.
 

3. Turn your toughest critics into cheerleaders


Set yourself a goal: don’t just ensure you reply to questions or complaints on social media as quickly as possible, but that you resolve issues with such excellence that the customer will feel compelled to be equally vocal about your best qualities, too. It may not happen in every case, but all it takes is a few strong advocates on major social channels to help build up a reputation that attracts new customers and retains old ones.
 

4. Follow-up using a conversational approach


Sometimes customers don’t get back with a firm “yes” or “no” when they say they will. You can have reps relentlessly follow-up via phone or email, or you could suggest they adopt a more subtle way of keeping the dialogue going. This could include commenting on the customer’s social posts with some genuine insight, or sharing their content with your own followers as a way of helping them spread a particular message. More companies need to realize that social media is as powerful a nurturing tool as any that have been created.
 

5. Host a live event with speakers and attendees from around the world


Most major social media platforms — including Facebook, Instagram and more recently LinkedIn — have added the ability to stream live video from the convenience of your desktop. This marks an unprecedented opportunity to create the equivalent of a conference, workshop or webinar in a place that has a built-in audience. There are no limits on your potential reach, or who you could ask to take part. All you have to do is try it, measure the results and repeat.
 

6. Gather quick (but critical) feedback


Simple polls and survey tools are now embedded in several social platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. These are great opportunities to drive engagement and interaction based on an authentic interest in your target market’s opinions. In some cases you might get enough responses to have a meaningful statistical sample, but either way this is a mechanism to actively listen to customers and prospects.
 

7. Tell the most multimedia-rich stories possible


Browse through Instagram and Facebook and you’ll see what are simply called “Stories,” but are in fact a sophisticated combination of still photography, text and video. You can handwrite on some of these video and images, add GIFs or other elements. Provide a real-time recap of a physical event you’re hosting or attending this way. Celebrate the launch of your new product with a mashup of content about what led up to it. There are all kinds of possibilities here.

What have we missed? Probably a lot — social media is brimming with potential. The more open you are to making it a part of your company, the more you’ll wonder why you didn’t start even sooner.