At the opening of 2013, one thing is certain. Social Media can no longer be looked at as an experiment. According to a recent study done by comScore1, social networking is ranked as the most popular content category for worldwide engagement, reaching more than 85% of the population in 41 out of 43 major countries that were surveyed.

How are big companies reacting to the upsurge of social media? To cash in on this growing opportunity, according to a new study by the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth2, 73% of all Fortune 500 companies used Twitter, 66% had a Corporate Facebook page and 28% had a public facing blog in 2012.

Small and medium-sized companies are still not using social media aggressively – a recent eMarketer3 report found that just 24 percent of small businesses and 33 percent of medium-size businesses have integrated social media in a structured way for their businesses. However, this trend is changing and more small and mid-sized companies are expected to jump on the social media bandwagon in 2013.

Here are some examples of how companies are using social media to drive their businesses.

Brazilian fashion retailer displays Facebook ‘likes’ for items in its real-world stores

Brazilian Retailer uses facebook "likes" to sell in-store.

One of the problems brick-and-mortar retailers have with Facebook likes is that – by their very nature – they’re visible online, rather than in stores. In order to bring them into the real world, Brazilian fashion outlet C&A installed displays on their coat hangers to inform shoppers of the popularity of each item. This blurring of the boundaries between online and offline customer interaction is something that may set successful brands apart as the web integrates further into our daily lives.

Equine Dentist Builds Relationships with Facebook

This equine dentist has used Facebook to acquire at least 10-15 customers last year. How? “People do business with people who they’re friends with. Period,” he says. “And Facebook is a great way to get to know people. It allows people to see that I’m a person.”

Dell drives traffic to its eCommerce website to increase online sales

To sell your products or services online, you have to increase traffic on your website where customers can buy your goods. How can you accomplish this? Just do what Dell does. Dell “tweets” about special promotions for its followers on Twitter. Right now, Dell outlet has 1.5 million followers. Even if 5% of that audience sees the promotional tweet (roughly 75,000 users), 1% of those who see it click on the tweet (roughly 750 users) and 10% of users who click on the promotion (roughly 75 users) make an average purchase of $500, Dell will make 75 * $500 = $37,500 in sales. Not too bad for a tweet, right?

Although many companies are adopting social media in many different ways, two major challenges still exist. First, though it is evident that consumers increasingly go online to discuss products, seek advice and offer guidance, it is often difficult to see where and how to influence these conversations which can take place at a lightning speed or over a gradual period of time across many diverse channels. Second, there is no easy way to show return of investment on social media and many companies find that it’s difficult to justify devoting significant resources to an activity whose precise effect remains unclear.

The key to success in leveraging social media is to accept these challenges and treat social media as a long-term investment to improve brand image, customer loyalty and increase sales as opposed to focusing on short-term gains or immediate return on investment. Social media is here to stay and it is up to you and your company to decide how you want to make the most out of it!

1 – ComScore report
2 – UMass Dartmouth
3 – eMarketer