ONLY a fifth of online conversations in today's social media involve business, making it an underutilised tool for companies to communicate with their clients, according to Ryan Hogarth, speaker on communication, at the recent Markex conference in Sandton, Gauteng.

If a business wanted to exist in the next few years, it would have to "go social", Mr Hogarth said, and adapt to serve the local online community, which was among the fastest-growing in the world.

"The world is moving so fast that it is easy to become irrelevant," he said. "In a minute alone, 240-million e-mails are sent, 700 new Twitter accounts are opened and 72 hours' worth of video are uploaded to YouTube," Mr Hogarth said.

Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx, a business technology research provider, said it was important for companies not to be clueless about social media, which offered them new ways of responding to the demands of consumers.

"Mobi sites are going to become more important as more people start accessing the web through their phones," Mr Goldstuck said. "The reality is that not everyone can look at a computer screen to browse. Mobi sites are also important in that apps are great but they limit the number of people who have access to that information."

Some companies have turned to social media to manage crises. Steers, for example, recently apologised on its Facebook page for not having had enough stock to satisfy demand for a R10 burger promotion.

Mr Goldstuck agreed with Mr Hogarth's view on the importance of social networks, but said the effects of the trend were not yet clear. "Social media has yet to change the face of business. Rather, it has changed the relationship between a business and consumers, which will change the business sector by sector," he said.

An example of a business using social media well, he said, was First National Bank. "It is successful in being accessible through the 'RB Jacobs' figure on Twitter. But you have to have the culture of social media in the leadership of a business. A good example, although used a lot, is Vodacom, which has opened up lines of communications between itself and clients."

Mr Goldstuck said a social network should not be used for spin, and companies using social networks to interact with consumers should do so responsibly.

"Customers make business possible but businesses have treated them as a necessary evil rather than as VIPs," he said. "If you use spin on a social network as a company, you will get found out. People on social networks are smart and observant. Of course, there is a degree of spin that one can get away with, but one must careful while being open and accountable."

According to Mr Hogarth, "being connected socially allows business to have a conversation with the most important person - the client. By 2020, being connected will be as important as having electricity."

By that year, he said, an estimated 50-billion devices would be connected to the web, meaning customers would play an ever-greater role in shaping the way businesses operate.

"Facebook has become a rite of passage for 13-year-olds. All they will ever know is social interaction. Fourteen percent of consumers trust what adverts tell them; the remaining percentage trust peer recommendations," he said.

A survey by Ikapadata, a mobile data provider, found that increasing numbers of South Africans now accessed social media through their phones.

Jan Schenk, director at Ikapadata, said Facebook was the most popular social media platform across all living standard measure (LSM) groups, but especially among better-off township residents, of which 75% of respondents reported using Facebook on their cellphones with 54% saying they used MXit.

"South Africans are getting connected to the web and social media," Mr Schenk said. "The question is whether business can show innovation for users browsing on their cellphones. It is a much different experience to browsing on a laptop."