Spending two hours every day on social media networks might sound like a waste of time to some people, but for Auckland wine shop owner Jayson Bryant the media form an integral part of his marketing strategy.

Bryant has more than 3700 followers on Twitter, a site that allows users to send messages no longer than 140 characters into a scrolling newsfeed customised for people following you and those you choose to follow.

Twitter has exploded in the past two years and thousands of New Zealand businesses use the medium to get their message out to a wider audience.

Bryant is online for a total of two hours between 7am and 11pm and uses a service to upload and distribute video content to eight social media platforms, reducing the time he spends on administration.

He said businesses interested in social media needed to engage with the online communities that already existed, and not create micro communities by taking people away from successful social media sites.

People would not listen to your message if you used social media as another way to broadcast - "social media is all about engagement".

"Be of value, be interesting and don't be afraid to speak your mind. People like others that offer different perspectives from their own," Bryant said.

Twitter has became a virtual space where everyone from chief executives to service industry promoters, artists, journalists and brands such as Telecom and Whittaker's talk to one another and share information.

Technology commentator Juha Saarinen says a sense of loyalty between a brand and its Twitter following is achievable online but only if a business is sincere.

"People are interested in other people, not products or services directly. Only do it if you can take a personal interest in it," Saarinen said.

If you got the mix right, there was every chance social media would help your business but you needed to be consistent and maintain the momentum.

Auckland University of Technology spokeswoman Belinda Nash said Giapo, a gelato store in downtown Auckland, was a good example of a small business packing a big punch on social media.

Nash attributes its online success to the gregarious and lively posts of owner Gianpaolo Grazioli, nicknamed Giapo.

His "heart and soul is in that shop" and that came across online, she said.

If you wanted to make it on Twitter, you had to have a personality, you had to be a part of the community, Nash said.

Grazioli has cultivated many business deals online. He is so prolific with his tweeting that Giapo regularly features in the top 10 "trending topics" for New Zealand Twitter users.

Petra Mihaljevich, social media manager for All Good Bananas, says Twitter has created not only a community but also a platform that encourages engagement from the consumer, giving the consumer more power than ever before.

Six months ago, All Good started importing fair trade bananas from Ecuador and immediately started using Twitter and Facebook to promote its sustainable message.

Mihaljevich says she met fellow-tweeter Giapo online through Twitter, and what started as a friendly conversation has resulted in a fair trade banana sorbet.

"We're really small. We don't have huge budgets. Through Twitter we can connect with our customers in a direct way. Greenpeace's [Kit Kat] campaign showed how the consumer now has a voice. How they didn't want palm oil [in chocolate]. They were able to do that through a public forum, through a forum that showed momentum," Mihaljevich says.

At the moment All Good imports one container of bananas a week from Ecuador, which works out to be 1080 boxes, each containing 18kg of bananas.

This is small compared with All Good's competitors which import about 11 containers a day to feed the country's demand for the fruit..

As more than 460 million bananas are sold every year All Good sees an opportunity to grow by building brand loyalty online.

"We have had huge support from our customers. There are some real evangelists who want to see fair trade bananas work," she said.

Greenpeace New Zealand spokesman Nick Young said one of the most powerful aspects of social media was how information could be spread among followers and their friends.

"The magic about social networks is its peer-to-peer communication. We can communicate with our immediate audience. It increases with every ripple."

Young says direct email is still the biggest tool for reaching people but social media are important.

Facebook, for instance, already had about 1.5 million users and was growing among people aged 30 to 50.

Voyager, the maritime museum on Auckland's waterfront, is another business that has sealed deals with Giapo after meeting him through Twitter.

Voyager chief executive Paul Evans said social media were a cheap way for businesses to directly engage with their target audiences. But they needed to be be honest and transparent online because social media were public forums.

"As a communication method [social media] is on the record. You need a sound communication strategy, it's representing your brand. It's on the record and it's there forever."

Evans said that apart from increasing the power of consumers, Twitter was creating brand loyalty in an age of increased competition.

But not everything that was posted on Twitter was positive, he said, sometimes customers could bite back and that was when you needed to be on your game.

2degrees head of communications Bryony Hilless said the company took a tweet or a comment on Facebook as seriously as an email or letter.

The mobile phone company has one of the largest followings on Facebook with more than 30,000 fans.

She said 2degrees asked its fans questions through Facebook and posted images and video content of its upcoming advertisements on the networking site.

"As a service provider we want to be engaging, approachable and friendly. We want to be honest. This is just another customer service channel."

Hilless said it was a misconception that the company's core market was young and technology-savvy.

"We don't have a hugely young audience but we do have people who like to talk and share knowledge."

Only one of the company's 30,000 fans had been banned for abusive and inappropriate behaviour on Facebook.

"We moderate our social media channels, and we're responsible. We don't put up with abuse, that really upsets the other people in the community."

Urgent Couriers sales and account manager Catherine George runs competition on Fridays, and winners sometimes get chocolates or "a bottle of cold bubbles delivered to their door at 6pm on a Friday".

George said you had to take the good with the bad on social media and respond, always respond.

"I'm always polite. If someone asks me a question, I will always answer them. It's like seeing someone on the street, them saying hello and you ignoring them [if you don't respond on Twitter]."

Urgent Couriers was a company that did not have a sexy product to sell but one that had captured the imagination of the Twitter community.

"I'm not on Twitter to shout 'I'm Urgent Couriers, I'm great'. I talk about all different types of things. You don't yell about yourself but people understand you're a business. So sometimes it's about promotion, but some of the people [we follow] have no relation whatsoever to our business."

Hilless said a company needed a specific person or team to manage the social networking sites, people who were brand ambassadors and knew what they were talking about. "It's how you deal with the problem. How you resolve those issues that matter."




FLITTER ON TWITTER
Top tips for businesses using Twitter from social media consultant Justin Flitter

* Get your profile and biography done properly. If more than one person is tweeting, make sure they are included in the background of the profile and that their job title is included as well.

* Find a free tool like socialmedia.com to find out who is talking about your business, brand, product and where they are talking about you ... on Facebook, Twitter, blogs.

* Participate in your online community, go to meetings where people who use Twitter meet and other social media gatherings.

* Introduce yourself to those people already talking about about your brand or product, so they can influence others to follow and talk about you.

* Identify an active group in your local area who tweet a lot, follow and talk to them and meet them in real life.

* Use hash tags in tweets to help other people find your content.

* Use lists to better manage Twitter. Lists help businesses aggregate their followers according to specific businesses or products.



New Zealand social network users
* 72 per cent use Facebook
* 32 per cent use Windows Live
* 14 per cent use Twitter
* 9 per cent use MySpace
* 8 per cent use LinkedIn



SOCIAL KIWIS
* 34 per cent want companies to actively interact with them through social media
* 51 per cent want companies to interact with them when needed by request
* 41 per cent would like companies to solicit feedback
* 56 per cent say they feel more engaged with companies that interact on social media
* 57 per cent say that as consumers they feel better served by socially engaged companies

FACEBOOK

* 75 per cent of New Zealanders aged
* 15 to 39 years use the site, that's 1.67 million active users
* 26 per cent are aged 18 to 24
* 24 per cent are aged 25 to 35
* 36 per cent are over 35, the fastest-growing age group

Sources: Saatchi & Saatchi and Colmar Brunton Social Networking Survey