Over the past few years, social media has quickly grown from a social pastime to an essential part of building a successful business.

The Social Media Report 2012, released in collaboration between Nielsen and NM Incite, explains that social media has become a key communications tool across many platforms. Facebook remains on top, following closely by Blogger and Twitter, with content sharing website Pinterest seeing the largest increase of users.

With each passing year, the number of devices and the number of ways to stay connected continue to grow, thus encouraging people to stay online for longer periods of time.

Choosing Your Device

No longer do people have to sit at a desk or use a laptop to browse the internet; with smartphone technology and other mobile devices, such as tablets -- the internet goes where they go. According to the report, from July 2011 to July 2012 the amount of time spent on social media sites went up 21 percent; but the methods of reaching the sites is changing, with more social media users favoring mobile devices over PCs.

Despite the pending takeover of mobile devices, PCs are standing strong. 94 percent of people use desktops and laptops when visiting social media sites, 46 percent of social media sites are visited using mobile phone devices, while tablets and e-readers were used six and three percent of the time. 

Despite all of these devices, television is becoming an important part of social media engagement.

While the computer is the still the primary device used to access social media, the last year saw significant increases in usage, most notably through tablets and internet-enabled television,” says the report.

Although internet-enabled televisions are still relatively new, their impact on social media is already being felt with an increase from two to four percent. For those who don’t have internet based televisions, the role that television plays in their social interaction is still strong. 41 percent of tablet users and 38 percent of smartphone users end up looking up something they've seen on television, such as information about a show or a product in a commercial.

Social Media as a Business Tool

With this mind, businesses have started to embrace social media as a way for them to not only market their products and services, but connect with current and potential customers. For example, 70 percent of social media users said that when looking at products over social media they do so to see what others are saying, 65 percent do so to find out more information about the product and about half said that they post comments, questions or concerns.

One of the most important ways that customers and businesses connect is through social care, the social media version of customer service. The most popular way that social care happens is through a company’s business or marketer's personal page on Facebook, but other ways include through Twitter handles, blogs and YouTube.

Customers find that being able to connect not only in real-time, but in an efficient and consumer friendly manner helps social media improves their relationship with businesses as marketers and other business representatives seem more approachable.

According to the report,

Customers choose where and when they voice their questions, issues and complaints blurring the line between marketing and customer service."

Overall, most customers tend to engage with marketers once a month, while one in four social media users surveyed in the report said that they prefer social media contact over talking on the phone.

Not Everything is Perfect

Even though social media is become an engagement tool for marketers, the way that products are advertised needs to be worked on. Only 14 percent of those surveyed for the report said they bought a product after seeing an ad. How the product was purchased varied: 10 percent of social media users purchased an item online, eight percent bought the item through a store, while 18 percent used the ad only to receive a discount coupon. The types of products discussed over social media varied: travel and leisure services made up 60 percent of conversations, following by food, beverage and fashion at 58 percent and restaurants at 57 percent.

The report suggests that marketers need to work on “word of mouth” social advertising as opposed to using the traditional ad format. People are more likely to listen to advice from friends and people they know. Thirty three percent said that ads on social networks are more bothersome that other types of online ads, while 26 percent said they are more likely to look at ad information if it was posted by a friend or acquaintance.

"Social media represents a huge opportunity for brands to gain positive favor with customers," says the report. "With growing disposable income in emerging markets savvy marketers can harness the growing adaption and influence of social media to impact business."

Although the reason for visiting and engaging through social media changes from person to person, one thing remains the same: social media is here to stay.