People like to live in groups—family groups, work groups, hobby groups, sport groups. Since the dawn of time we have connected with each other to grow food, eat, form families, procreate, declare our religious allegiance and fight wars. So, with the advent of PCs and the Internet, what has changed? Nothing, as it turns out. We connect to others to form groups. But nowadays there are digital groups as well as groups for our usual day to day human to human interaction.

People on the Internet tend to interact with each other in social, trusting and communal ways, and this is what makes the explosion of digital interactivity and interconnectedness so powerful.

From the early days of online activity, before CompuServe, people have interacted with each other electronically. I remember how CompuServe issued a series of numbers to represent user names, and I struggled to connect my 300 baud modem to the Internet by dialling the CompuServe access number on my phone and placing the handset into the soft rubber cradle on the modem hardware device. In the early 1990s, the advent of forums, newsgroups and Internet Relay Chat led to an explosion in interaction with the Web. With Web 2.0 we have been trying to connect digitally in much the same way. There are gardening forums, recipes, dating sites, pornography, religious sites and virtual gaming worlds. We are striving to connect in the same social groups and achieve the same personal goals—but now we want to do it online.

Social networking, and thereby social media, lies at the heart of these connections—and by creating, maintaining and cultivating valuable interactions with the connections in your local and remote hubs, your networks can grow and thrive.

Companies that have an effective social engagement strategy in place, with a manageable timescale and structured implementation plan, can find their customers, identify who the movers and shakers are, and connect effectively with them.

They can watch who is active in the markets they want to go into, check the sentiments of their audiences’ messages and listen for their challenges. Relationships can be built carefully on a one to one basis. Detractors can be turned into advocates, who can be encouraged with an appropriate programme to become key enthusiasts broadcasting and amplifying your message on your behalf.

So is the great conversation just the new buzzword of the new millennium? Or is it actually the biggest shift in human behaviour since the industrial revolution? For this we need to look at the new ‘generations‘. Baby boomers include people who were born after the Second World War between 1945 and about 1962. Generation X includes people who were born from 1963 to approximately 1979. Generation Y, or the Millennial Generation, includes those born from 1980 to 2000. Generation Z are those who have been born in the 21st century. The Generation Y population now, in 2010, outnumbers the baby boomer population, and 96% of the Generation Y crowd have joined some sort of social network for interaction. These social networks are changing the way we communicate in a fundamental way. We no longer search for news‘the news now finds us. Soon we will no longer search for products or services‘these products and services will find us via social media.

They key thing here is not that we communicate digitally, rather the particular ways we do so.

You can’t pick the ’winning’ medium and ignore what your friends and colleagues are using.

Different mechanisms of communicating using conversational tools may bubble up to the top in popularity for a time, but the fundamental concepts behind how we use these products to communicate are the same throughout each network. These engagement applications are here to stay. Of course, the actual applications themselves will morph into something else, applications for mobile phones will come to prominence, and new technologies that use social media to connect will appear. Old and poorly designed applications will fade into obscurity. We’re living in the age of the perpetual beta, and we need to learn to evolve with these technologies and adapt to take advantage of this new way of working. Our challenge is to learn how to adapt to the new way of working in a dynamic and rapidly changing world and work out how social media actually works for us as an individual, colleague, parent and friend.

This fundamental shift in the way we communicate has the ability to transcend boundaries. Barack Obama conducted his presidential election campaign on Twitter and YouTube. He successfully encouraged a significant number of Americans to vote for him, who would not normally have bothered to follow the campaign or vote. He continued this effective online presence with a conference in March 2009 answering questions using a voting style popular on the information channel Digg. He even appears to have a LinkedIn profile. On a more personal level, the video of Susan Boyle, an ordinary contestant on a UK talent show with an extraordinary voice, has been viewed over 120 million times on YouTube, catapulting her into the limelight and millionaire status within 6 months of her first appearance.

For corporate users, embracing this change can be beneficial in more ways than one. A common criticism from consumers is that companies don’t listen to them, don’t care about the people who buy their goods. Customers feel that once the goods or services have been purchased, the customer care programmes are poor or non-existent. Companies are often vilified for bringing out ’new and improved’ products after poor market research and with little consideration for the customer. They are accused of launching new products that are not ready for the market, that don’t fit customer requirements, or fail customers’ expectations. On the other hand, there are some companies whose fan base is the envy of the market. Think of the passion that Apple invokes across the technology sector, with new products announced to a joyful fan base and queues of potential purchasers camped out outside the Apple store, desperate to be one of the first to own one of the shiny new gadgets. Think of the hoards of Harley-Davidson aficionados, some of whom are happy to have the brand as a tattoo on their bodies’a permanent reminder of their loyalty. Think of the consumers who will only drink Starbucks coffee and eschew all other brands. Think of the image of Rolls Royce, of Perrier, of Gucci and Coca-Cola.

But what if your company doesn’t have this level of loyalty, dedication and support from your customers? Ideally you want to grow your market share, win customers’ loyalty perhaps from a competitor and improve perception of your company in the marketplace.

Consider incorporating push—pull conversations into your traditional strategy as a new mechanism for reaching your audience.

You may have considered extending your traditional marketing approach and current online marketing strategy and you may have plans to embrace the world of Web 2.0. The prospect of interacting with your customers, the people who actually buy your products and services, can give you the opportunity to extend your reach into new, global markets, and connect more closely with your online audience.