I bet not many of my fellow millennials know when they first created their Facebook accounts. I was eleven when I created mine in 2009. Back then, you had to be eighteen to be able to create an account, and I recall being afraid of what the consequences would be if I lied about my age. When I first made my profile, I absolutely loved it, which is obvious by the fact I posted every other day. Times have certainly changed, as the last time I posted on Facebook was well over a year ago, but my newsfeed looks very different than it did back then as well. The primary function of Facebook is no longer just connecting with friends. As I scroll through my newsfeed, I see a page full of suggested posts, and posts by pages I never sought to follow, as well as a range of sponsored advertising.

Whether I’m toning it out or not, I’m constantly being exposed to it. In recent years, the world has become more and more commercialized, and so too has social media. As of July 2015, the internet had 3.17 billion users, and around 2.3 billion of those users were on social media. The number of social media users continues to grow, and the research shows there are 2.46 billion social media users now in 2017. With such impressive usage numbers only going up, it would seem ridiculous for a company not to be implementing social media as a part of their marketing strategy.

The ability to reach any specific targeted audience within the vast digital landscape is now as easy as a few thoughtful clicks and what makes it better is it’s tremendously efficient. Something companies not yet up to speed in social media need to recognize however, is to effectively leverage social media you have to pay to truly increase brand awareness and engagement. This is the most significant difference in the platform since I first created my account in 2009. Facebook has evolved from a free personal community to a robust business marketing and advertising vehicle used by the most savvy Fortune 500 companies to engage their products and services with their specific consumers.

Yes, you can still set up social media platforms for free. Yes, you can post as much as you want. Yes, you can incorporate hashtags to help users find your content. For businesses seeking to leverage the true marketing muscle of social media, free posts won’t yield strong results. It’s important for brands to find a balance between paid and organic posts—but plan on spending some extra time and budget on your paid strategy.

Companies today aren’t solely trying to target young audiences, and because of that fact, they are still somewhat hesitant to put a sizable amount of money towards a social media campaign. There still seems to be a stigma around social media platforms; people incorrectly think younger generations are the sole users of these platforms. While it is true engagement is highest among generations who grew up with the technology, the numbers are starting to even out.

Among all American adults, % who use social networking sites, by age

source: Pew Research Center Surveys, 2005-2006, 2008-2015; no data available for 2017

So what does this mean? It means it’s essential for companies to be putting time and resources into a strategic and focused social media effort. The excuse that some of your consumers won’t see or care about social media is no longer valid. A Goldman Sachs study examined the importance of brands using social media. 34% of people (ages 18-35) agreed with the statement, “When a brand uses social media, I like that brand more.” Compared to 16% of individuals ages 36. A recent study, “found that 47% of millennials say their purchase decisions are influenced by social media. For perspective, the figure is 19% across all other age groups”.

These statistics point to the fact that social media has a serious impact on the way people of all ages view brands and make final purchasing decisions. If a consumer enjoys a product, the next goal would be for them to buy it again, or also, ideally, to tell their friends about how great it is. And where are they going to do that? Social media. This isn’t a phenomenon of just the younger age group. In a Goldman’s Sachs study, they asked people of all ages, “how do you communicate with others about a service, product, or a brand?” with the following results.

Text Social Media Instant Messaging Blogging
Millenials 44% 38% 38% 16%
GenX 32% 25% 19% 7%
Boomers 15% 11% 8% 2%

Social media is now at every stage between a company and a consumer. Considering customers are using social media to comment and review products, it’s a good idea to get a step ahead of them, and “encourage current customers to leave reviews for your brand,” says Gary Sumpter, CEO of Brokedick. “The possibilities are endless.” The goal is to create a relationship with one’s customers. If a company motivates people to interact through comments and feedback, consumers will feel like they are part of a community instead of just another subscriber. “If you can create a friendship with these consumers, you really take it to the next level. They will go to great lengths to support you,” says Sumpter.

While an effective social media effort has become an essential component within a brand’s marketing mix, the challenge remains no one strategy universally works for all companies. Each business has it’s own brand personality, it’s own unique message and personas requiring a customized approach.

Social media has clearly evolved since I first created my Facebook account in 2009, becoming not only an integral part of people’s lives, but an influential and critical marketing tool for business, with usage numbers continuing to climb. When utilized correctly, social media can lead to massive upside for businesses to reach and engage their specific consumers. As the data clearly illustrates, 2.5 billion people are actively engaged 24/7 on the vast digital highway. With proper navigation via well-positioned digital billboards and messaging, you can help guide them right to your door.