Get Ahead of the Game Using Social Networks Online; Social Media May Still Be Treated with Suspicion by Some Company Managers, but It Could Unlock a Wealth of New Ways to Grow Your Business. Expert TRACY PLAYLE Will Explain All to the Durham Convention This Week

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ACCORDING to a new report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, organisations that are able to grasp social media's potential to transform the way they function will secure a significant competitive advantage over their rivals.

Why? Because the dynamic, user-generated information exchanges that social networks can provide give them a new means to understand and work with their customers.

Social media expert, Tracy Playle, of Pickle Jar Communications, who will be speaking at Durham Business School's third annual Durham Convention tomorrow, has seen first-hand how the phenomenon of social media is challenging brands to think about how they engage with their customers.

"Digital and social media is part of the marketing mix and should not be seen in isolation," she says. "That's why organisations that use social media tools effectively embed them deeply into their strategy.

"You can't put social media in a box and say it's just about having a conversation online. It's far more than that - it's about real and meaningful connections.

"The key point to remember is that social media is about people and not about brands. Even if a company embraces the concept of social media and wants its people to get involved, it needs to sell-in the concept at an individual rather than an organisational level."

The great thing about social and digital media, she believes, is that it breaks down social, economic and demographic barriers.

"It's a myth that social and digital media are just for young people. The fastest growing demographic on Facebook is women over 45, so older people are starting to recognise that there is much value to be gained, whether it is using social media as a tool to stay in contact with friends or developing new networks around shared interests.

The same applies to the over-60 'Silver Surfer' generation, for whom social media offers a new window to the world - especially those with mobility issues or those who would rather be social from the comfort of their own home," she says.

Of course, social media is not everyone's cup of tea. Some people still view it as a passing fad while others are reluctant to reveal personal information on-line, fearing privacy issues or identity or security theft. …