Unless you've been hunkered under a rock or in the back of a cave, you've at least heard the term "social media" Depending on your perspective, social media either represents the fall of western civilization or the perfect marriage of people and technology.
The term "social media" actually refers to 4 specific types of tools.
The first type, "social connection sites" like Facebook and Linked In, allow users to make, share, build, and interact with social contacts online.
The second type, "social stream of consciousness" sites like Twitter, allow users to share their thoughts quickly and easily (regardless if anyone actually cares).
The third type of tool, "social bookmarking" sites such as Digg.com and Delicious.com, let users share and rate individual sites and other media.
The fourth type of social media tool involves sites like Kongregate.com or games such as Farmville which contain "social features" to link users together.
In theory, users of social media link up, interact, and use the sites and tools as their creators intended. And, if your intentions are strictly about keeping up with friends or professional contacts you actually know in the real world, you can easily use social media to do just that. However, once you try to go beyond just networking with people you know (and the people they actually know), the world of social media gets murky fast. Though powerful and effective when used correctly, social media quickly becomes a never-ending rabbit hole of time, energy, and effort, especially for small business owners.
If you want to use social media to build your small business, keep the following in mind at all times.
Most businesses mistakenly use social media as a one-way communication tool. In fact, this represents the core mistake anyone makes with social media. You must use Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to create a real dialogue – a real exchange of communication. To do that, you can't follow 20,000 people or have 50,000 friends. Bottom line, if the communication isn't authentic, you're fooling yourself that it's actually worth doing in the first place.
Members of your target audience hold the key to your success, not the other way around. Use social media communication to get direct input from people on your products and services. Get them to tell you their hopes, fears and problems and, more importantly, how you can help them. While building your following, you can use social media search tools (like twitter.com/search) to spot trends and problems you can solve.
Watch Your Time
Most of what you need to accomplish with Facebook and Twitter can happen in less than 15-20 minutes per day. Any more time than that is a waste of precious time. Until and unless you can track business directly to your social media activities, keep a tight rein on you time.
Share Value & Fun
The number one reason anyone sends their friends or comes back to you themselves is because of value. Always remember: nobody really cares about you and your business, they only care about what your business can do for them. Share information and news others can use and you'll build a list of meaningful contacts. Put out a stream of useless drivel or "quotes of the day" and you might as well not even sign up for a Twitter account.
Bottom line: social media tools are just that, tools. You will not get rich overnight just because you signed up for a Twitter account, nor will you get inundated with business because you hang out a shingle on LinkedIn. You can, however, experience real results if you use these sites as originally intended: to create meaningful connections with real people.