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updated 3/30/2013 10:17:17 AM ET 2013-03-30T14:17:17

By now, if social media isn't a critical element in your online marketing strategy, it should be. Having a presence on sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn can add value to your product, to customer service and ultimately to your brand.

But simply having an account and broadcasting company news isn't enough. To attract and keep customers -- and to build a strong brand online -- business owners need to be active on social media. They have to provide valuable information and engage with their followers.

Here are four things businesses should be doing on social media in order to grow the brand online:

1. Engage with followers and provide customer service.
Your customers are engaging with your brand wherever they are -- including over social media. Don't miss this opportunity to listen to what they're saying to and about you, and to provide the best customer service.

Why is this so important? Responding to customer questions and resolving issues over social media shows everyone who's following you -- and potentially anyone who is online -- that your company cares about its customers, potential customers and goes the extra mile for people.

Related: 10 Tips for Using Twitter Like a Pro

Tools like Hootsuite and Tweedeck can be handy for monitoring mentions of your brand over social media. As for when and who you respond to, set the tone early. If you reply often, people will expect it. If you don't reply a lot, people will see that as well and might stop engaging with you as often.

2. Crowdsource ideas.
Use social media as a marketing research tool. Just as people can reach out to you, follow you and stay connected with you, business owners can do the same with their customers. Social media is a two-way street.

Say, for instance, you're getting ready to launch a new product. You can ask your fans and followers what they think about specific details like which colors they prefer or what types of features they want. Not only can you get real, valuable market research at no cost, you're involving the consumer in decisions. Asking customers for their opinions can help show that they matter, and when they see their ideas become a reality, ideally you create brand and product champions.

Related: What to Do When Customers Get Mean on Social Media

3. Keep an eye on the competition.
Remember the old saying: Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer. 

When it comes to business, it's good to know what your competitors and other companies in your market niche are doing. By keeping an eye on their social media feeds, you can learn a lot about a company -- what it is doing differently, what it's good at and what it's bad it. Use this information to implement things in your strategy that you might be missing such as contests, giveaways or forms of content that their followers respond to most.

4. Establish yourself as an industry expert.
Nobody can know what you know unless you share your knowledge. By sharing information like tips, advice and answering questions about your industry, you can position yourself as a valuable resource.

Develop a content-sharing strategy where you respond to questions daily, provide unsolicited tips and share your perspective on industry news. Over sites like Twitter and reddit, also consider scheduling events such as question and answer sessions. Let your followers know that you'll be hosting the session, set the date and time, and determine the theme or topic you'd like to discuss. Then let your followers know that you'll try to answer everything they ask.

Related: 3 Tips for Maximizing YouTube's New Layout for Brand Channels

Copyright © 2013 Entrepreneur.com, Inc.

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