Social media seems to be everywhere this year. Facebook is rarely out of the mainstream media and marketing publications are constantly referring to the ever increasing percentage of budget being moved to social media. With all of this activity, it is worth taking a step back and thinking about what social media really is, how it may look in the future and what it may mean for your company.

The world of social media is currently dominated by a few brands. Most of us have heard of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook but the other big players are Ning, LinkedIn and Foursquare.

The important thing to remember is that each of these brands are just that – brands, and like any brand they are designed to cater to a certain niche to meet a specific need: Facebook connects friend and family together, YouTube helps people communicate via video, LinkedIn connects business professionals together and Foursquare allows users to tell their friends where they are at any given moment.

As with any successful product or service the people behind these brand names spotted a need and developed a solution to it. They then went about working out how to generate revenue. As they are able to generate a huge amount of data about each user (age, gender, place of work, where they live, things they like, people they know and so on) the most obvious move was to provide highly targeted advertising. Facebook is the brand that has managed to do this the best. It is still early days and there will be more experimentation and innovation that will inevitably lead to headlines and huge investments.

While all of this has been fascinating to observe it really doesnt answer the question what is social media?. In much the same way that one cannot understand the entirety of the motor industry by looking at Toyota social media cannot be defined by the market leaders.

Social media is the convergence of technology and the desire for people to be connected. In an age where people are increasingly feeling isolated, social media has managed to connect people with old friends, complete strangers and interest groups (or said another way market segments) in a way that any other technology that came before has been unable to do. We humans are essentially tribal animals and social media has allowed us to gather into these new location-free tribes incredibly quickly. Whats more the users of social media like it and want more.

The march of social media is now unstoppable. There have been times this year where the amount of time spent on Facebook eclipsed the time spent on Google. This competition is only going to intensify. Facebook recently released some new tools to extend its reach and influence over the whole of the web.

Social media is now becoming more than a marketing experiment. By the end of the year the majority of big name companies will be looking at how social media can be directly integrated into their brand strategy. It will be the core of any new digital strategy.

In many ways the age of the website is over. People may still go to your site but they expect information to be tailored for them and available on the social media platform of their choosing and on any device that connects to the web. Expect this trend to intensify. The more you can utilise your social media presence the better. It is even now possible to embed ecommerce and other web based applications directly into Facebook. So most brands need to start thinking about their websites as databases that organise and distribute information and features to specific groups within the world of social media.

In the end, the development of social media is being driven by an old saying: ‘knowledge is power,’ and the person with the most data wins. Each social media brand-name earns its money from collecting and analysing data. And they are not too keen on sharing all of that information. There is obviously a huge amount of data that brands can obtain from the many social media monitoring tools currently available. But this is still not a complete picture. If you really want to know what is going on you need to devise ways to generate and own your own data. This is not always an easy thing to do if you are used to thinking about campaigns and short term goals. If you take a longer term view it is possible to generate massive amounts of data relevant and specific to your brand, your competition and your product category.

There is still plenty of room for companies to use social media in smarter ways and develop methods to generate valuable insights. If you move quickly enough you might even be able to turn those insights into profit before your competition has had a chance to catch up.