Consumers are interacting with social media in so many different ways it’s hard to keep up. Their online and offline lives are increasingly intertwined, and that extends to ways they are connecting with brands and companies. Here are five new ways that people are engaging with social media that you can use to help your business.

1. Check-ins

On the weekend I toured around the beautiful Margaret River region, visiting a number of local attractions. Where possible, my sister-in-law ‘checked in’ to various attractions or businesses via Facebook on her iPhone. In effect, we were telling our social networks where we were, all powered by the iPhone’s geo-location capabilities. On a number of occasions friends would respond saying ‘hey I’m here too’, or ‘I’m just driving past, I’ll stop in a say hello’. Thanks to our check ins, a number of local businesses acquired extra customers and extra sales.

Lesson for business? Encourage check ins as much as you can. Remind customers to ‘check-in’ with posters, table talkers or coasters and give them an incentive or reward. A check in is like a free recommendation – use it as much as you can!

2. Friend-feedback

Social media is also providing new ways for people to seek advice and recommendations from their friends. I’ve seen friends of mine ask for recommendations on the best travel agent, movies, clothes, shoes, travel destinations and more. Websites dedicated to providing independent reviews are maximising this by creating linkages with social media. For example, if you are logged on to Facebook and visit Trip Advisor, any comments made by your friends appears first.

Lesson for business? You need to be vigilant about monitoring online chatter about your business, and reward a recommendation if it comes up. There’s nothing more powerful than receiving a personal note of thanks for a recommendation – this should extend to the online space too.

3. Ask and you shall receive

For one of the first times in history you can now ask for ideas, feedback, suggestions or whatever you like via social media, and importantly, you can respond! I’ve seen company Facebook pages taking suggestions for new merchandise lines, new flavours, new products, new colours – you name it. Best of all, this crowd-sourcing of information doesn’t cost you a cent – while it’s not as thorough as proper market research, it’s better than stabbing in the dark.

Lesson for business? Use your social networks for feedback, opinion and information. And importantly, if you’re asked a question or given a suggestion which requires a response, respond straight away! In the social media realm people expect instant responses because that is what they’re used to. Set up Facebook on your mobile and make sure you log-in at least once a day, even if it’s only for 15 minutes.

4. Be the authority

Social media is also a prime way to feed information and to become an authority on a certain topic. We often tell our clients that positioning yourself as the expert is one of the most effective ways to become a market leader. Social media makes this even easier – it can be as simple as posting links to relevant articles or information, encouraging opinion or chatter about a certain topic, networking online with other ‘experts’ or simply doing your research and providing good honest content yourself. Twitter is the ideal media for feeding information, and the better your information, the more people will follow you.

Lesson for business? Devote time to researching the online space about your particular field of business and feed the information through your social media spaces. Information will empower your customers, and turn them into advocates. Advocates are the most valuable social marketers you will ever have.

5. The new way to search

Another way consumers are using social media is as a replacement search engine. I’ve seen a rising number of companies skipping websites all together and going for a Facebook page instead. Because Facebook and Twitter pages are generally closed off to traditional search engines, many consumers are turning to the social space itself to get really in-depth information. This has and will continue to impact how people search.

Lesson for business? Monitor what comes up in every possible media when your company is searched. A Facebook search is much more broad and can include companies from all over the world with a similar name to yours. So name your page correctly and make sure consumers know you are the real deal.