For several years I’ve been working with professional service providers on how to build and develop their presence online. Only last week I ran a full day workshop in London for a group and it was exciting to see how much enthusiasm there was for communicating great content through Social Media.

Attendees were starting to grasp the idea that posting high value content is not just about marketing to prospective clients, but also about adding value to existing clients.

A common question which comes up is “Which Social Media sites should I use?”. In fact, the question comes up so often, it would seem that people are somewhat obsessed with this aspect of Social Media.

The short answer is:

“Within the context of your Social Media plan, you should use the sites where your target audience hangs out. What’s more you should find the special interest groups and communities which many of them join – niche forums, LinkedIn groups, Facebook groups and increasingly beBee ‘hives’”.

The problem is, most business professionals simply don’t know where their target audience hang out online. Even worse is that they don’t know where their existing customers hang out – because they’ve never asked them.

I’m usually at pains to point out that Social Media is not about your choice of tech – it’s more about your choice of technique. And to know what technique to use, means knowing very much more about your audience’s Social Media and online habits.

So as part of your client fact-finding and ‘getting to know your client’ process, in this day and age, it’s essential to know and understand how they use the Internet in their day to day lives.

Everyone uses the Internet and Social Media to a greater or lesser extent, and to know how a prospective customer is using it is increasingly important if we are to a) find them online and b) engage with them in a way that is meaningful to them and which adds value. Think about it – how can you know what to post or where to post it if you haven’t first asked your target market where they are and what they want to see?! ‘Tweet and hope’ really isn’t a viable strategy.

Many entrepreneurs and businesses have a startling lack of knowledge about their prospects’ and customers’ Social Media activity. It is rare that when I run a workshop or speak at a conference, to find more than a handful of people who know their Social Media or website numbers – even the very basics such as the number of site visitors over the last week/month, what pages on your site they visited, how long they stayed on your site and how many left without visiting a second page. Many also don’t take the trouble to look at their Social Media stats, and simply don’t know which of their tweets, blogs and videos are hitting the mark.

This inevitably means that they don’t know or understand how people are using their website or how well prospects are engaging with their product or service offering.

How we use the Internet is very different from just a few years ago, and up until April 2010 we visited search engines more than social networking sites (source: Hitwise). Google and other search engines were more like an online Yellow Pages, where we searched for a product or service that we wanted, found it, read about its features and benefits and then made our purchase either online or in person.

Since April 2010, visits to social networking sites have overtaken visits to search engines, and partly because of algorithms, blogs, videos and other content-based sites, we are presented with information about products and services that interest us with increasing regularity. In short, we are very much better informed about services that we are interested in before we even visit a website which supplies that service.

For example, I’ve been told by more than one of my clients in the automotive world, that people beginning their journey towards making a new car purchase, almost always begin that journey online.

This has implications for the design of our websites. Gone I believe are the days when we can get away with having a ‘brochure website’. We can no longer expect people to arrive on our website and then go straight to making a purchase – particularly a big or expensive purchase. It’s too big a leap for them to make - they need some value first.

People arrive at our websites far better informed than they ever used to be, so we now need to go way beyond providing merely product and service descriptions – we need to excel at providing value which goes beyond what a prospect has already found out for themselves.

This value that we should provide, now needs to be part of our overall proposition, and in a way which helps people to build a relationship and trust in us over time, so that purchasing our highest value product or service becomes their natural choice in due course.

This concept of a ‘value ladder’ is not new, but its significance is becoming increasingly important in the design of our websites and how we present ourselves online. We might have the fanciest and most professional-looking of websites, but unless a visitor can take increasing levels of value from it and so build trust in us, it will be no better than an old-fashioned brochure site.

Give value on your website to potential customers which far exceeds their expectations, and help them to ascend your value ladder so that making a high value purchase becomes their only choice of action.

How you add that value is up to you – we are only limited by our own imaginations as to how we take our expertise and repackage it in creative ways which rapidly builds trust in us and our highest value products and services.