Note: This post is courtesy of our guest contributor Sally Falkow, Social Media Strategist at Expansion Plus.
There were many sessions at the recent PRSA conference in San Diego that focused on the need for companies to get involved in social media. Discussions involved the need to move beyond the testing and experimenting phase and put together a social media strategy , the practice of new media relations and how to find the right influencers, the need to treat social media as an ongoing commitment instead of a campaign, and why measurement is so important.
I led a discussion (sponsored by Marketwire ) and we took a somewhat different approach.
The session was based on data from two research studies that identified engagement as a core factor for success today: The CMO Council’s Marketing Outlook 2009 and the Wetpaint/Altimeter Group’s ENGAGEMENTdb. 
The ENGAGEMENTdb report clearly shows that the companies that were most engaged with their communities were also the ones that weathered the economic storm best. There is a definite tie between engagement and the bottom line.
What is engagement? The Wetpaint/Altimeter study defines it as:
“Resembling any in-person exchange, socializing requires more than just being there; you have to interact with others, instigate discussions, and respond during conversations. Our study implies value in social engagement on top of social presence; it pays to actively and continually participate and invest in your networks.”
So, it’s not good enough to just have a Facebook page, a Twitter feed or a YouTube channel. You have to move to the next level and to actively participate in the online discussions.
Our session covered three examples from the study – Starbucks, SAP, and Dell.
- Starbucks: With just a small team of six people, Starbucks launched a very active and effective social media program. The person who heads up their social media team was once a barista, and they have a big community who love the product and the culture of Starbucks. They currently have 530,000 followers on Twitter and have been mentioned on 4,000 Twitter lists – a feature which launched just this fall.
- SAP: In addition to their vibrant BPX community , where community members can have in-depth solution conversations and engage in social networking, SAP has launched social media channels on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and WordPress — channels that foster fun and useful dialogue throughout the SAP community. The social media programs are run by a team of 35 people and they manage a community of 1.7 million users. SAP opened the platform to anyone and everyone, but two-thirds of their contributors represent customers, thought leaders, analysts, and partners from the broader SAP ecosystem.
- Dell: Dell started its engagement in social media from crisis mode – the “Dell Hell” story of 2004. Today, the company tracks conversations about Dell and nurtures customer and stakeholder relationships. It also tracks revenue generation from the Dell Outlet on Twitter (@DellOutlet), which has resulted in more than $1 million in revenue.
This kind of success isn’t limited only to large corporations; our PRSA panel showcased two smaller California-based companies that have had stellar results from deep engagement with their customers.
- Service-now.com  set out in July of 2005 to be the “Gmail of big business service desk software.” They saw themselves competing against Goliaths, namely the “Big Four” of the IT software market. To achieve rapid growth they used the modern Web as the “sling” and customer champions as the “stones.” Fast forward to 2009 and Service-now.com has been cash-flow positive for two years, and FY 2009 revenue grew 105 percent over FY 2008. Their goal for FY 2010 is more than $50 million, which will represent another year of triple-digit percentage growth.
- Skin MD Natural  launched a brand new category in the lotion space based on years of research into the causes and treatment of dry skin, eczema and psoriasis. They called it a “shielding lotion.” The entire launch was done using online PR and social media. They now have relationships with more than 400 bloggers, who write and have conversations about the product in vertical communities such as gardening, craft, medical, and automotive. Their sales, revenue, and profits increased every month in 2009, as compared to 2008.
You can read additional posts on my blog , by following me  on Twitter, and by visiting my website at http://www.expansionplus.com . For the full PRSA presentation and companion white paper, send an email to Monica Nakamine  at Marketwire.