According to Gartner Inc. by 2014, organisations that refuse to communicate with customers via social media will face the same level of wrath from customers as those that ignore today’s basic expectation that they respond to emails and phone calls. But whilst there is no denying that social media is a powerful marketing tool for 21st century businesses, many companies remain paralysed by a fear of the unknown.

With the number of socially savvy consumers increasing, social media marketing is something you can no longer afford to ignore. So here are some of the biggest fears and how you can overcome them:

1. I’m not generation ‘Y’ I won’t understand.

Marketing and PR traditionally involved heavy control of your public messages, but social media has opened up a much more relaxed dialogue of public interaction. Whilst Generation Y ‘Digital natives’, who have grown up with new technologies; the Internet, smartphones and tablet computers, are using social media as a way to interact with the world. ‘Digital immigrants’ on the other hand, those that were born after the existence of digital technologies and adopted them later on in life, are understandably nervous when it comes to adopting social media as a business tool.

But social media is not just a land for the digital natives. In fact many social media platforms see an even split between the different age demographics. Twitter for example, is split evenly between the main adult demographic groups 25-34, 35-44, and 45-54. Likewise, LinkedIn professes to have 79% of its users over the age of 35. So you won’t be alone as a ‘digital immigrant.’ That’s not to say though, that you won’t need a helping hand when using it as a business tool. Taking it step-by-step, and using personnel already involved in marketing your business is a good place to start. With clear strategy and guidance from marketing professionals you can ensure you don’t fall at the first hurdle.

2. There are so many channels, where do I start?

It’s all about Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and Flickr and of course LinkedIn and did you know MySpace is back, oh and you’ve got a Google+ account right? With hundreds of social media platforms, constantly being developed, and redeveloped, navigating the rapidly evolving digital landscape can feel like a minefield.

But don’t worry; you just need to pick the ones that are right for your business. Start by identifying your target audience: where they congregate; what their needs are; and what you can offer that nobody else can. This is essential when deciding which channels are most appropriate. Then establish ­ a set of messages and ‘rules’ in line with your overall marketing plan – remember each platform will need different treatment, and warrant a different strategy. Ensuring everyone in the company knows what you are trying to achieve through each platform and how, adds focus and strategy to an otherwise haphazard campaign.

3. Who’s going to want to hear what we have to say?

Who will want to follow us on Twitter, like our Facebook page, or read our blog? Building critical mass is no exact science, but it always begins with content. Whether it is generating thought-leading blogs or providing relevant how-to-guides, or simply commentating with insight into industry topics, making your content consumable and valuable to the audience is the crux of the social media challenge.

But it’s not just articles, blogs, whitepapers or big company news that consumers what to hear, social media has opened its doors to a much more liberal dialogue between consumers and businesses. With 75% of consumers using the Internet to research a business or brand before purchasing, customers are looking for more insight into the ethos and personality behind a company. Simple day-to-day things that employees would previously take for granted can become useful social media nuggets of information – a new customer, a single thought on a news topic, the initial idea for a new product or design, may all seem like daily occurrences, but can offer valuable, personal insight into a company.

4. Will we be opening our doors to negative attention?

We often find that a company’s biggest worry about launching a social media campaign is opening its doors to potential negative comment. The difference between social media and more traditional methods of marketing, is social media involves conversations; creating a forum for discussion between business and consumer and building relationships through open, honest and authentic engagement.

The worry that you could spark a flurry of negativity from the general public – or even competitors is justified. There have been plenty of social media faux pas in the past, e.g. companies like Gap, and American Apparel jumping on the back of hurricane Sandy – to promote shopping during the storm – was not taken well by those affected. But social media just needs managing properly; it’s no good diving headfirst into it with only the new intern at the helm. Clearly assigned responsibilities, properly defined strategies and good quality content is essential. Here, Marketing and PR professionals can play a valuable role. With knowledge of what warrants shareable and valuable content, the ability to step back from your business and the allocated time to spend on building a community are valuable resources when building a social media community.

You will find after that, as long as you are creating authentic, open and honest communication, and using common sense, then your customers will respond accordingly.

5. How do I keep up?

Social media is not one-dimensional, it is rapidly evolving and it is important to continually monitor activity and responses and adapt your strategy accordingly. When measuring ROI, metrics need to be aligned with business objectives – what are you trying to achieve? Customer loyalty or business growth, for example. If something’s not working –change it. If it works then repeat, and patterns will emerge in your social media activity, which can be formalised.

Fear is the greatest barrier to change. As the saying goes “if you do what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” Social media is no longer a luxury but an essential means of securing future growth and engaging the consumers and businesses of tomorrow. So lose your inhibitions, get a strategy and plan of action and embrace the world of social media.