What if you could design your own pizza, tweet the recipe, and then order it in from your local Pizza Hut? Or close the deal on a new condo through an iPhone application? These are just two clever ways that brands in Brazil are using social media to engage customers – and earn some return on investment.

Brazil has the highest percentage of social media users in the world. By the end of last year, more than 67 million Brazilians – that’s 35 percent of the population – had access to the Internet, according to Nielsen. Of these wired Brazilians, 38 million spent an average of 71 hours a week on the Web, and 80 percent visited blogs or social networks such as Google’s Orkut, Brazil’s answer to Facebook.

Buying a house? There’s an app for that

These numbers are extremely enticing to companies who invested R$1.3-billion (more than US$700-billion) in the Web last year. Tecnisa was the first construction company in Brazil to do business over the Internet and the first in the world to sell an apartment – worth R$500,000 – via Twitter.

With 35% of its sales originating online, the company has already closed 38 deals through Twitter, where they have 6,000 followers, and two deals through their iPhone application in the last year. One customer took just four days to buy an apartment through the app.

Tecnisa has a long-standing relationship with the Internet; in 2005, it was the first Brazilian company to launch a corporate blog. Romeo Busarello, the company’s Internet director, says the Web is about building relationships as well as ROI.

“The Internet is not the end, but the channel for us,” Busarello said. “The social networks help us with brand monitoring, competitive intelligence, public relations and customer care. We engage with neighbours, stockholders and bloggers.”

Free delivery in 140 Characters or less

Engagement was also the goal of Pizza Hut of Rio Grande do Sul, which received more than 80 suggestions for new pizza combinations on Twitter during a recent promotion.

The five best recipes were put to a vote on the franchise’s website. The winner – a combination of beef, pork, cheese, oregano and barbecue sauce – garnered 1,746 votes and was added to the menu as the “Twitter Pizza.”

Fun with magazines

Like their counterparts around the world, Brazilian media brands are also striving to reinvent themselves online.

Ediouro, publisher of the crossword puzzle and hobby magazine Coquetel, transformed its website into an interactive gaming portal. The new site gets 2 million visits per month, has led to increased magazine subscriptions and, most importantly, refreshed the brand’s image.

“Crossword puzzles are victims of the digital age, of the mobile phone and the absence of free time,” said Robert Cassano, the strategy director for Frog Agency, which spearheaded the Coquetel rebranding. “For print media, digitalization is both the death and the salvation.”

The lesson here is that brands ought to offer customers a space to connect with each other and communicate with the brand. That’s why the new world is about return on engagement, not just return on investment.

“Social networking involves understanding the consumer broadly, talking to them individually, and mobilizing those brand advocates,” Cassano said.

Facebook of Brands

These days, 70 percent of Brazilians use Orkut to interact with brands and each other. But a group of local executives is trying to empower consumers with a new website called Drimio, which is the first social network focused exclusively on the customer-brand relationship.

Marketing specialist, Gil Giardelli, says that Orkut used to be a space for consumers to create communities and publish their opinions about brands. But then the brands themselves started using it to publicize their services and silence critics.

“Most companies use social media to publish content, recruit brand advocates and then start selling,” Giardelli said. “But the first step is to practise radical transparency, in which all decision making is carried out publicly.”

Drimio allows members to follow companies, publish information about them and share their brand experiences with other customers. Drimio puts customers back in the driver’s seat.

Meanwhile, at Pizza Hut, here comes one more Twitter Pizza for someone wrapped up in a crossword puzzle or checking out a new apartment – all on the Web, of course!