Today, I spoke to Rahaf Harfoush, who is a social media strategist, author of Yes We Did, research coordinator for Wikinomics and a contributor on Grown Up Digital. She supported the Obama campaign with regards to social media. In this interview, Rahaf talks about the common mistakes businesses make when it comes to branding and social media, how to conquer the fear most companies have with regards to social media, and more.

In your opinion, what are the most common mistakes businesses and organizations make when it comes to social media and branding?

The most common mistake I see are businesses who think they need to be doing every new thing. They are all over the place simply because they feel like they should be without necessarily considering how much value it’s adding to their overall strategic objectives. Your best bet is to really sit down and think your strategy through. Where are your consumers naturally congregating online? What are they doing there? How would you like to engage with them? These thoughts have to be carefully considered before entering this space, otherwise you end up wasting valuable time and money, not to mention potentially irritating potential customers as well.

Many large companies hesitate to engage their audience online, fearing it will backfire. How do you help them move past that fear and see the value in engagement?

Fear is a natural reaction. We are in a space where information travels so fast and companies no longer have the same type of control that they did with other mediums. The easiest way to show the value of these tools is to show these companies that conversations are already happening about their brand, products and competitors whether they are involved in the dialogue or not. In my opinion, it is better to be involved and know what is being said about you, then to be caught unaware! The trick is to take each comment as a learning opportunity, be ready to hear things that might be difficult and to show a willingness to want to improve your service offerings. The conversation is already taking place, will you risk not being involved?

Are there companies that CANNOT benefit from using social media?

I’m sure there are. Social Media is just an evolution of an existing set of marketing tools. If for whatever reason your audience is not online, maybe SMS, direct mailing campaigns and traditional media outlets might be a better solution. While I believe that every company should have SOME type of online presence it’s up to each individual company to find the right balance that allows them to be visible and accessible to their clients.

You recently attended a conference in Switzerland – what are some personal branding and social media trends that are emerging in Europe?

People are turning more towards social media, however Forrester research reported that Europeans trust blogs and online sources far less than their North American neighbors. It will be interesting to see how these different cultures will impact the evolution of online relationships. This is still such a new field that we are still only just beginning to grasp its potential.

How do you predict future generations will be impacted by the increasing popularity of social networking, location-based networking, etc.?

I think your grandchildren will know you far better then you know your own grandparents. We have created such a rich history of digital footprints that the way we are changing our definition of “identity” to encompass a much broader spectrum of digital tools. What will be interesting is to see how the legislation evolves particularly around the areas of privacy, data ownership and online accountability. I was quite concerned with Italy’s recent conviction of Google executives for Google’s hosting of an inappropriate video. It will be interesting to see how these laws will impact our rights as online citizens.

Rahaf Harfoush is a social media strategist on the rise. Her clients include InnoSpa-Unilever, British Telecom Wholesale, and the Web Foundation. She speaks to corporate and non-profit groups on the increasing use — and vital importance — of online technologies and the powerful ideas of community that animate them. She recently accepted the position of Associate Director of the Global Redesign Initiative at the World Economic Forum, in Geneva. In this role, she will co-lead the development of the Forum’s online community platform. Prior to this, Harfoush spent three months with the Obama New Media team in Chicago. An active member of Toronto’s technology community, she is involved with associations like The Movement, an organization of people committed to collaborating on projects for social good, and The Overlap, a community that combines cross-disciplinary expertise to tackle the challenges of sustainable innovation. Harfoush is the author of Yes We Did, a book about the grassroots groundswell inspired by the Obama campaign. She is the Research Coordinator to the critically acclaimed Wikinomics and a contributor on Grown Up Digital.