Social media can be boggling. There are hundreds of social-media platforms online, and it's easy to spend dozens of hours visiting them, creating and updating profiles and leaving comments. But will that really help your business? If done right, social media can be a productive tool for keeping existing customers happy and finding new ones. Below, we outline how busy small-business owners can use social media effectively and efficiently.

What is social media? Social media includes the various online technology tools that enable people to communicate easily via the internet to share information and resources. Social media includes everything from the blog on your Web site that allows comments to chat sites such as Twitter, social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook customer-review sites such as yelp.com, image- and video-sharing sites such as YouTube, and bookmarking sites such as Digg.

Small businesses that use social media report it's an increasingly important way to connect with prospective new customers. For instance, national radiator-replacement company 1-800-Radiator in Benicia, Calif., is finding several new customers daily on Twitter, says Internet marketing vice president Rose Rippey.

The 20-year-old firm began using social media several months ago, and now searches Twitter several times a day for the word "radiator." When it finds people who're frustrated because their radiator is broken, the company tweets back, suggesting using their local 1-800-Radiator dealer to get a new radiator installed fast. Twitter has proved so productive that the company plans to up its monitoring and start using applications that will let it see Twitter radiator references in real time.

"People go on Twitter when something happens to them, like their radiator dies," says Rippey. "Our results are building, and we think by summer this will be a really important marketing tool for us."

While social media can be an effective way to market your business, it can also be an unproductive time-waster. We asked two experts on the best ways to use social media for business: Shel Israel, author of Twitterville: How Business Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods (Portfolio, Sept. 2009) and Deborah Micek, co-author of Secrets of Online Persuasion (Morgan James Publishing 2006).

Listen. Begin by simply monitoring what people are saying about your company on social sites. Also notice the site etiquette and tone of posts. On many social media sites, for instance, it's not considered polite to post continually about your own company - you'll be expected to share interesting ideas posted by others as well.

To track relevant conversations, set up a Google Alert on your company name, or use a tool such as Tweetdeck to monitor topics in real time.

"Customers are recommending where to eat, what to watch, what hotel to stay in," Israel says. "The small business guy who's not on social media has no access to the conversation."

Learn. Take advantage of free online ebooks and tools to help you understand social media and use it more effectively. Two resources Micek likes are The Twitter Handbook and timesaving device Friendfeed.

Find your audience. Different social-media sites have different visitor demographics. If you sell primarily to teens, Facebook or MySpace might be the place for you. If you're selling to other businesses, LinkedIn might work better. Once you've identified the best sites for your business, set up profiles on two or three of the most popular. Fill out the profile completely and include photos - you want your profile page to be an engaging, welcoming place.

Participate. Once you have your profiles made, keep changing them. Updating pages and adding content will drive your page up in search results and draw new visitors.

"Keep adding things," says Micek, "and people will keep coming back to it, wanting it and loving it."

Engaging your customers and prospects in social media can take many forms. Besides updating your status on social media platforms, you can build your credibility and reach more visitors if you:

  • Ask questions on LinkedIn, Yahoo! Answers or other forums, or answer questions posed by others
  • Join groups and participate in their discussions
  • Write guest blog posts on popular industry forums
  • Respond to unhappy customers who complain about you online

Spread the word. Think of ways to connect your brand to popular people or Web sites, and you'll put your message in front of more potential customers. Follow or "friend" others in your sector or interest areas, and many will follow you back or connect with you in return.

Micek's favorite tip for mass exposure: If you attend a conference or event, try to snap a photo of yourself with prominent people in your industry. Then, post the photo to platforms such as Facebook and "tag" them with the person's name. This will bring the photo up on the thought leader's site as well, which likely has more followers than your own. Some viewers will click on the photo and end up at your site, exposing you to new audiences.

Do what you're good at. Israel notes that social media encompasses a mix of text, audio and video methods. If you enjoy one form more than another, do the one you like - you'll be more likely to do it well, keep at it, and enjoy yourself in the process. Also consider the audience you're trying to reach, and what methods would best reach them.

"Asking 'Why should people use social media?' is like asking 'Why should people use a telephone?' Israel says. "It depends on what you want to do."

Learn from the big guys. Some major corporations have been very proactive in establishing their presence in social media. Much of what they've done could be easily replicated by a small business. A great example is Comcast's customer engagement on Twitter. Through their Twitter address @comcastcares, Comcast is connected with more than 32,000 people, and can quickly respond to customer questions and complaints.

You can read how Kodak does social media and measures their results by reading company chief marketing officer Jeff Hayzlett's Slideshare presentation, Social Media Tips. Or read "fluent: The Razorfish Social Influence Maketing Report" - especially see page 50 for Razorfish senior strategist Diana Stepner's article, "Ten Ways To Make the Twitterverse Work for Your Brand."

Whatever form of social media you choose, once you get going, try to add content regularly, blogging or updating your status at least once or twice a week. New content brings visitors back and lures new visitors, and keeps the positive buzz about your brand growing.