New Zealand businesses and tour operators need to better market their brands and companies online and lure customers through sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare, says social media enthusiast Julien Smith.

Smith, who spoke at the Social Media Junction conference in Auckland yesterday, said small businesses could successfully and cheaply market themselves online by taking advantage of the variety of platforms available.

Smith said a good local example of a small business making a big splash on social media was Queen St gelato store Giapo's strong following on Twitter.

"It's creating an audience online that reaches a lot of customers. It has the ability to reach people in a cheap way. By creating an online presence you can sell beyond geographical boundaries," he said.

Smith is a New York Times bestselling co-author, with Chris Brogan, of Trust Agents - a book about how using the web can build influence, improve a business' reputation and earn the trust of its customers.

Online bookseller Amazon listed it as one of 2009's top 10 business reads.

Smith said for a country built on the foundation of small- to medium-sized businesses, New Zealanders had an opportunity to further develop their brands locally and globally.

He said whether a business was already selling a product or providing a service, or an entrepreneur wanted to create an online business, social media were a forum that could help to grow a company.

"It's a global village now. These things weren't possible before. The web is not filled with as much evil and spam as we think it is. [Most] are real people trying to create real businesses. It's empowering the person to have a voice, to have a dialogue online of goodwill and see where that flows to."

Smith said many businesses that were run by mature people found social media intimidating or failed to see the value in it.

This was about changing attitudes, provoking dialogue and putting out what people talked about around the watercooler, he said.

"Through social media you can create an army of friends that become your evangelists," Smith said.

Other speakers at the conference included Vodafone spokesman Paul Brislen, Interest.co.nz editor Bernard Hickey, US-based online consultant Andy Beal and Telstra, Australia, social media senior adviser Mike Hickinbotham.

About 200 delegates, a mix of private-sector and local-government employees, attended the conference.

Many communication and marketing managers were said to have attended to see how social media could help their businesses.

The #smj - the conference's official Twitter tag - was the most used hash in New Zealand on the site yesterday.