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Like the Force in the Star Wars movies, the Internet was once a mysterious metaphysical power that we barely understood and only used with great difficulty. To get access to this power, we had to fire up our 512-MB PCs, then listen to the otherworldly screech of a modem — right after we made sure no one else in the house was using the phone line, of course.

Now, not so many years later, our children have no idea what a modem sounds like. We’ve evolved, learning to wield the Internet like Luke learned to wield his light saber. The Force that was so mysterious is now commonplace and highly personal for each of us. We carry it around in our pockets, purses, and briefcases in the form of phones and tablets that are 100 times more powerful than our old PCs ever dreamt of being.

If the Internet is our light sabre, then social media is the power that springs forth from it when we turn on our devices. It connects us in a way that is unprecedented, equally adept at informing us of happenings around the corner and around the world. Social media’s ability to reach huge audiences relatively easily has changed the business landscape. It’s everywhere and it’s not going away.

For example, at that industry luncheon you attended the other day, you may have overheard someone in the room saying they were “live tweeting” the event. You went to lunch recently with an associate from another company and she bragged about the highway job her company just completed. Then she pulled out her phone, opened up the Instagram app, and proudly showed you images of the beautiful work her firm did. It’s everywhere and it’s not going away.

Nevertheless, many still labor under the misconception that social media is strictly a fad or a tool that teenagers use to gush over Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga. There was a time when that might have been largely true, but social media is not just for kids anymore, and it hasn’t been for a long time.

According to a 2013 Fast Company magazine article, “10 Surprising Social Media Statistics That Will Make You Rethink Your Social Strategy” (www.fastcompany.com/3021749/work-smart/10-surprising-social-media-statistics-that-will-make-you-rethink-your-social-stra), the fastest growing demographic on Twitter is the 55 to 64 age bracket, while the 45 to 54 age bracket is the fastest growing demographic on both Facebook and Google+. Also according to the same article, the most growth of any demographic was among 45- to 54-year-olds, whose participation on social media now matches the U.S. average.

These demographics might include you. Certainly they include people you work with. They probably include your boss and his boss, your CEO, and the board of directors. They certainly encompass decision makers in the organizations and agencies for which your firm wants to work. In short, these demographics include many of the people you want and need to reach. Maybe even more importantly, these demographics include your clients, past and present. They include the people who are, even now, talking about and shaping public opinion about you, your company, and the work that you do.

“Absolutely not,” you say. “There’s no way that the agency we’re working for is using social media!”

Not true. According to AASHTO’s Fourth Annual State DOT Social Media Survey (http://communications.transportation.org/Documents/Social%20Media%20Survey_final_Oct2013.pdf), “Nearly every state department of transportation is actively engaging the public through social media communication channels.” The survey also found that 90 percent of state DOTs use both Twitter and Facebook to help share information about traffic incidents, construction projects, safety initiatives, and public involvement opportunities. New York City’s Department of Transportation heavily utilizes social media, as does the MTA. San Francisco’s BART system and Boston’s MBTA both have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and the Los Angeles DOT relied heavily on Twitter (with great results) to warn motorists during “Carmageddon” weekend in 2011.

So, what does this mean for your company? Plenty.

Reputation building and branding begin with conversations, and your company’s reputation is defined by what people say about you. Social media is an excellent way to get the conversation started. Who, outside of your company, knows about the groundbreaking design you did for that 100-year-old bridge? Who knows about the amazing plan you designed and implemented at the very last minute for a highway closure? What happened to that video of your great speech before hundreds of your peers? You do great work and that fact should be communicated somewhere besides the occasional newsletter or on the company website, which may only get a few hits a day.

However, before your firm implements a social media strategy, you need to ask the following questions:

  • What’s your goal? Are you trying to enhance branding and awareness, extend public relations, drive sales, or achieve some other goal?
  • Who is your audience? Agencies? Other firms? The public? The answer to this will drive how you deliver your message.
  • Is your plan in writing? Once the first two questions are answered, you need a step-by-step plan in writing.
  • How will you deliver content? Who is in charge? What platform(s) will you use to get the message out?
  • How will you measure the results?

Social media connects us. It can help to grow your firm’s reputation with existing clients, potential clients, and the public. You can use it to help your company’s products and people get discovered. Used strategically, you can harness it to grow your business and your reputation, and enhance your efforts on behalf of your clients. Don’t let others dictate the conversation by failing to utilize this valuable tool.

A future article will outline how to decide which social media outlet is best and how to utilize it to its full potential.

Hugh Smith is director of Community Outreach and an associate with Sam Schwartz Engineering, D.P.C. (www.samschwartz.com). He can be contacted at hsmith@samschwartz.com.