Social media is taking the marketing world by storm. You have probably heard about it by now in the form of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, or LinkedIn; you may even be a devoted or daily user of some or all of the above. The basic premise for any of these forms of social media is still the same — free, open communication over the internet between whoever posts a thought, phrase, rant, photo, video or other form of communication and a virtually limitless audience in cyberspace. According to Wikipedia, “Social media supports the human need for social interaction, using Internet- and Web-based technologies to transform broadcast media monologues (one to many) into social media dialogues (many to many). It supports the democratization of knowledge and information, transforming people from content consumers into content producers.”

Said Chip Hanna, interactive account director for the Balcom Agency, Fort Worth, Texas, in an article in the Fort Worth Business Press, “Simply put, social media is people having conversations online. That's it. This happens on thousands of sites every day. People talk about everything from environmental issues to what they ate for lunch. At first glance, it can seem overwhelming, but it can actually add tremendous value to your business and provide a hefty return on investment.”

It's way too easy to just dismiss Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the other forms of social media as nothing but a huge waste of time, without considering how these communication tools can help your business. Sure, we have all mocked the drivel that some people post on blogs, the senseless “tweets” on Twitter or the self-absorbed “I'm having a bad day, sigh” declarations on Facebook. But the fact is that any of these communication mediums can be used as a legitimate business tool to inexpensively promote your company. Let's take a look at the strengths and weakness of each of the most popular forms of social media. Also be sure to check out EW's LinkedIn page and www.ewweb.com for more basic tips on utilizing social media for your business.

Blogs. In the business world, blogs offer news or commentary on a particular topic. They are an online meeting place where people can communicate about a topic of common interest. They work best when there is open and active communication between blog's publisher and visitors, or among visitors themselves. Blogs don't work quite as well when a blogger only uses a blog as a tool to get his or her opinion out on the marketplace, and isn't trying to spark an open discussion. While they are very simple to start up, to keep readers coming back you must continually refresh your blog with fresh content. WordPress or Google's Blogger are two of the more popular (and free) software applications you can use to create blogs.

Blogs get a ton of action when people use them to comment on an important news story such as a change in management or a natural disaster. For instance, Transmission & Distribution magazine's Editorial Director Rick Bush posted regularly on electric utilities' efforts to restore power during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and last year's Hurricane Ike. And when Mike Rioux left IDEA, Rosslyn, Va., the “ElectricalTrends” blog published by David Gordon and Allen Ray at www.electricaltrends.com was alive with postings from industry insiders on the transition. There's another new blog for the electrical industry that will be of interest. Launched in August, Electrical Marketing's LiveWire at livewire.electricalmarketing.com offers access to free regular postings on industry news; paying subscribers get more in-depth reports and access to timely market data.

LinkedIn. Launched in 2003, LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com) first became popular as a networking tool for business professionals to post their resumes to their online networks of friends. LinkedIn now has more than 40 million members and is growing rapidly as a tool for businesses to establish online communities for their existing and potential customers and other buying influences. You can quickly establish a presence for your company on LinkedIn by using the “Groups” feature. The basic information that most companies post include a brief company profile, a link to their website and a logo. Once your site is live, simply invite your business contacts to join your company's LinkedIn network. To find who amongst your contacts is already on LinkedIn, the site provides a tool that helps you search your e-mail contacts.

As with other forms of social media, current content is king on LinkedIn. A great way to do this on your LinkedIn page is to get discussions started by using the “Discussions” feature. Warning: If you only use this feature as a thinly veiled attempt to promote products, visitors won't bother to return.

You can also keep your LinkedIn page fresh by using news feeds to bring in industry news from blogs, websites and other sources, often via a RSS feed. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds are used to distribute content via the Web. You are welcome to feed your LinkedIn page with Electrical Marketing's LiveWire blog. Just click on the “News” tab on your LinkedIn Page and then click on “Manage News Feeds” in the right column. Then just paste http://livewire.electricalmarketing.com/feed/rss into the blue box titled “Add News Feed.” To become part of Electrical Wholesaling's LinkedIn network, click on the “search groups” pull-down menu and type in “Electrical Wholesaling.” Another LinkedIn group to check out is the “Electrical Wholesalers” group, which currently has more than 200 members.

Facebook. While LinkedIn is generally considered to be more popular with business professionals than Facebook, it may still make sense for your company to have a presence on Facebook (www.facebook.com) because of its huge popularity with the under-30 crowd. Facebook now has more than 300 million active users, and according to Facebook's own statistics, 50 percent of its users log on in any given day. Think Facebook is only for teenagers and college students? Wrong. Facebook says its fastest-growing demographic is users 35 years old and older. Setting up a presence on Facebook is a snap, but like any other form of social media, visitors won't keep coming back unless the content is always fresh.

Twitter. Twitter (www.twitter.com) is a different breed of cat than the other forms of social media. Started in 2006, Twitter already has 18 million users. All “tweets” (posts) must be 140 characters or less. Twitter gets bashed because so many people just use it to post self-absorbed summaries of their daily activities.

Some marketers in corporate America, however, have latched onto Twitter as a communication tool to inform readers of new promotions, do brief surveys or respond to customers' questions. According to a posting on www.mashable.com (one of the most popular social media blogs), Southwest Airlines has 633,481 twitter followers at @SouthwestAir and Ford and GM have active Twitter sites, although they don't yet draw the same huge numbers as Southwest. An article posted at 247wallst.com, “Ten Ways Twitter Will Permanently Change American Business” said, “As Twitter grows, it will increasingly become a place where companies build brands, do research, send information to customers, conduct e-commerce, and create communities for their users.”

YouTube. Yes, YouTube (www.youtube.com) can be hilariously funny (I am partial to “Slip and Fly - Amazing Waterslide Jump” and “Homemade Water Slide - Ron's Slip n Slide”), but it can also be a useful tool to post product videos. ElectricSmarts, Glastonbury, Conn., posts product videos for its clients on YouTube, and several distributors, as well as the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED), St. Louis, Mo., have promotional videos on YouTube.

Summary. One tip for using social media stands above all the others: Keep it real. Social media is intended to be an open conversation among people with common interests. If you do it right, and provide the proper online meeting places, the conversation will sometimes be about your company's products or services. If you mess up and attempt to dominate the conversation with shameless self-promotion, you will be left standing alone at the party with no one left to talk to.

During a recent webinar on social media, John Sonnhalter, founder of the Sonnhalter ad agency, Berea, Ohio, gave an audience of electrical marketers some “do's and don'ts” on using social media. “Social media is about conversation,” he said. “It's casual. Don't sell… Don't sell… Don't sell… It's not a silver bullet. It's a good tool to add to your toolbox.”