There are generally three schools of thought when it comes to the value of using social networks for marketing purposes. There are those who consider it the most valuable, essential tool in the history of marketing, while at the other end of the scale there are those who consider it useless, at best. Somewhere in the middle are those who simply want to promote their website as best they can, and like to use all the tools as their disposal to do so.
This is nicely mirrored by the results of various surveys: In 2012 the Social Media Examiner found that 83% of marketers indicated that social media was important for their business but the State of Inbound Marketing found that in the same year 52% of respondents said that their biggest frustration was in accurately measuring their Return on Investment (ROI) from social marketing. Luckily, there are some indisputable reasons as to why you should be using social networks as part of your marketing strategy, and the good news is that doing so doesn't even require a great deal of time or resources.
The simplest reason for setting up a presence on social media networks is as a part of your Search Engine Optimization (SEO) efforts. Links to your website from other websites are one of the most important ways in which Google and other search engines decide how important your website is, and therefore how highly it should rank for any particular search term. Setting up a profile on each of the major networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+ (even without any customization or design) will provide you with the chance to create links to your website. So even if you don't have the time or resources for anything more than setting up a basic profile, you can use social marketing to your advantage and gain additional traffic from improved search engine rankings.
Of course, setting up a basic profile on social networks is only going to earn your website a negligible improvement in search engine rankings. And, despite widespread speculation, Google has announced that it does not in fact use any kind of "social signals" when calculating a website's rankings - meaning that, for example, the number of followers you have on Twitter is not going to impact your search engine rankings. But this does not mean that activities such as users "Liking" pages on your website on Facebook, "Tweeting" links to pages on your website on Twitter, and sharing them via Google+ is not going to benefit you. Combined, these kinds of actions are called "buzz" by the marketing world, and all of them benefit from the fact that users are, in effect, recommending these pages to their friends. And the great news is that you can set your website up to facilitate such activity and then sit back and relax.
Most of the links being shared via social networks involve content such as videos, articles and news stories - it's not so likely that many users will spontaneously decide to share your company's homepage. This is another advantage of having a blog, news or article section on your website. High quality, original content will nearly always be enjoyed and shared by at least a few of your website visitors, and it's up to you to provide the methods with which they can do so easily. Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other major social networks all provide tools that you can integrate into your website's content to make it easy for people to interact. For example, when a Twitter user visits your website and enjoys one of your blog posts, they should be able to simply press a button to "Tweet" that content to all their followers. As a result of such an action, your website benefits in two ways:
If you own a website that either requires users to login to perform an action, such as place a vote or complete a form, or that accepts visitors' comments on specific pages, you can improve visitor engagement by allowing them to effectively "login" to your website using their social network credentials. The functionality to allow you to do this is offered by most major social networks and allows you to, for example, identify a visitor who is already logged-in to their Facebook account and allow them to interact with your website using that account. This will normally result in your website enjoying increased engagement, since visitors will appreciate not having to register on yet another website.
Most visitors to your website will have a strong preference as to how they would like to communicate with you. When it comes to being kept up-to-date with your news or new products, some visitors will prefer to sign-up to your email newsletter, others will subscribe to your website's RSS feeds, and others would prefer to find out via the social network of their choice. It's therefore important that, as a minimum, you post the same news and updates that go into your newsletter to the major social networks, even if you don't have the time for anything else, and that you advertise this fact on your website. Naturally, as a consequence of having a presence on social networks, you may find that some users want to have conversations with you, or even post complaints in "public". Such cases represent a good opportunity to build more personal relationships with visitors and customers, and to demonstrate your company's commitment to customer satisfaction.
As we have seen, using social media to promote your website can lead to great rewards for your website and business and does not have to involve a great deal of time or resources - in fact in many cases you can let your website visitors do all the hard work. And while it's not the most important way to optimize your website for improved search engine rankings, there is no disputing it's usefulness.