No one can deny that social media is a robust and growing part of nearly every marketing budget today. Considering that it was once considered a waste of time that only pandered to a few tech-savvy customers, yet is today the voice of many, many brands across diverse audience segments: Social media has come a long way.

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However, data shows that in spite of social media's growing acceptance in marketing budgets and corporate boardrooms, not many businesses are comfortable loading life-changing responsibilities onto social media’s supposedly frail shoulders.

It’s considered a "good-to-have" tool, but not a game changer that affects the future of the business.

Ah, such wasted potential! Here’s a look at why that is, evidenced by two cases that demonstrate social media’s power to make or break brands.

Social listening comes to the rescue

Social media listening involves monitoring and participating in conversations about one’s brand across the Internet. Knowing what your users think of your brand and the problems they face -- or simply understanding the reasons they don't use your brand -- can be useful in creating a strategy shift toward better brand acceptance.

Tools like Mention and Topsy help track every instance that a user mentions your brand with or without a direct @mention. Mention even allows you to set up email alerts for specific keywords and lets you download CSV files of every tracked mention over a defined period of time.

Case 1: Hallmark. This ubiquitous greeting card brand turned around strongly negative perceptions into glowing recommendations purely on the back of its active social listening. The company launched a toy puppy called Jingle that would bark, woof and interact with kids as they read the storybook that accompanied the toy.

Predictably, kids loved it. Parents loved it more. However, disaster struck when a batch of about 1,000 Jingle puppies turned out to be defective. The backlash against Hallmark on social media was instant. From videos featuring crying kids, to scathing Facebook posts, to terrible ratings on Amazon: Disgruntled customers use every platform they could to be heard.

Thankfully, Hallmark was listening. It personally reached out to each disgruntled customer with a custommade (and funny!) apology note. It also sent them a yet-to-be released toy puppy "Nugget" along with a voucher for a future version of Jingle. The result? Users lapped it up. The negative reviews were replaced with gushing recommendations. A full 75 percent of consumers turned around their negative perceptions, issuing strongly positive expressions of thanks for this exercise in corporate listening and rapid response.

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Social automation can be a double-edged sword.

Case 2: Progressive. Just as social media can be a huge customer enabler, not knowing what to automate on social media and what not to, has come back to bit brands in their backside over and over again. Take the case of life insurance company Progressive and its run-in with comedian Matt Fisher.

Fisher accused Progressive of wrongly denying a life insurance claim following his sister’s death. A number of Twitterati then stood by Fisher and protested the company's perceived unfair treatment of the bereaved family. Instead of replying to each person’s tweet individually, Progressive sent out the same automated reply to every user back to back, resulting in a meaningless and insensitive stream of conversation. This not only resulted in a sharp plunge in Progressive’s consumer-brand perception, it also led to thousands of customers cancelling their life insurance policies with Progressive. Ouch.

This is where it helps to separate what can (and should) be automated on social media, and what cannot. Social media marketers essentially perform two functions on their brand pages: They post content that their followers will like, and engage in conversations with followers on a one-on-one basis.

While conversations with users cannot be automated, posting content on social media definitely can be, with an auto-schedule tool like Tweet Jukebox or the auto-schedule feature of a social media suite like Buffer. Take Tweet Jukebox, for instance. This fascinating new tool has multiple libraries or "jukeboxes" full of tweets that you can schedule to post on your brand page automatically at specific times across a day.

Zero effort. Now you have more time on your hands to focus on those all-important social media conversations with fans on a real-time basis. In fact, data from HubSpot shows that companies that auto-publish posts on social media get 50 percent more leads than those that do not.

As we see in the examples above, social media is not simply an "accessory' to your marketing plan; it can be a vital game changer if used right. My advice? Stop underusing social media. Let this potent tool spread its wings and offer you the full breadth of its services. You’ll see the difference in no time.

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