[Inside Radio]

As any good on-air personality and radio exec knows, beyond airtime, the great behemoth that connects you with listeners and advertisers is social media. And more than ever, savvy stations are finding that the right social strategy is the best route to achieving the big goals—improving brand awareness, tapping access and ensuring engagement.

“I think most importantly, social media has turned a one-way communication medium into a two-way street,” says Seth Resler, Digital Dot Connector for consultancy Jacobs Media. “It’s now become a real conversation for the audience and radio, which has had a huge impact on the industry.”

Tim Murphy, VP of Digital Strategy & Enterprise Platforms for Entercom, adds, “Radio is the original social medium, so there is a natural, beneficial alignment between on-air and social extensions. Radio is already live and local with the unique ability to personally connect with listeners. Social channels create even more opportunities to strengthen that connection through real-time interaction.”

If it seems like everybody wants to get into the act, there’s a good reason: They’re already in it. As of 2016, 78% of Americans have a social media profile, according to Pew Research, up 5% from last year. The tally of social media users worldwide is nearly 2 billion, and is expected to grow to 2.5 billion by 2018.

That’s a swift climb for an “ism” that’s only been around for less than 15 years. The late great Friendster was founded in 2002, one year before MySpace and LinkedIn. Nowadays, the latter platform has almost 300 million members, according to digitaltrends.com. That, of course, pales next to Facebook which, as of last month, boasted 1.71 billion monthly active users, up 15% year-over-year, according to digital marketing consultant Zephoria.

With more options adding all the time to a list that includes Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, integrating the correct—and ever-evolving—platforms for specific audiences is among the most essential topics for the industry, and has a lot to do with what you need to use it for.

“Our social media goal is to create brand awareness that demonstrates a relatable, quality product while showcasing host personalities and our insider perspective on local news, politics and sports,” says Evan Rodd, Bonneville’s Seattle Social Media manager. “The days of organic social for most brands are pretty much gone, and content marketing combined with an ad budget is the new challenge….a holistic approach is required.”

Lori Lewis, VP of Social for Cumulus Media, believes that one of the great benefits of social is offering access to celebrities and artists from a listener/fan point of view. She points to CHR KRBE (104.1) Houston’s morning show with Roula & Ryan, which regularly invites the audience to access Facebook Live “so they have a chance to give opinions and ask questions with guests. It complements the on-air product visually when we stop for a commercial break, and it’s a fun, unique way to remind the audience they are an elemental part of the brand.”

While there’s no question that social media is being effectively integrated on-air, among the challenges for stations is: When you send listeners to digital platforms, how do you make sure they return to home base?

The live listener experience represents “the best of what radio has to offer, so our social media assets always drive fans back to our owned assets,” says Entercom’s Murphy. “We tease contests, exclusive interviews and special content they can only get by tuning in to the station. Our on-air talent engages with listeners through social media while they are on the air, and publishes contests and polls that have the potential to shape live programming.”

The notion of telling listeners to check out a social media post and then return to a particular daypart or to come back after a break simply “does not work in social,” adds Angie May-Cook, VP of Emmis Digital. “At a high level, we use social media to pull audiences into our content on-air and online. All of this engagement is an evolution of taking a one-to-many conversation to a one-on-one dialog.”

Lewis refers to the AM/FM stick as the mother ship, saying, “We should always be ‘pinballing’ the audience to social and back to the assets we own. There must always be a reason to return. If you invite the audience to live tweet during an event, make sure you remind them to tune in tomorrow morning for something unique. The party should never start and stop on social.”

But perhaps the first lesson is: Attend the party. You can’t take advantage of everything social has to offer if you’re not engaged in it strategically.

“Social media has evolved into a must-use tool—no matter what industry—to be in front of people who use or have the potential to use your service or product,” says Alex DeMers, founder & chief of consultancy DeMers Programming. “It’s imperative that you get in on the conversation.”