Michael Dell, the famed entrepreneur who started Dell Computer, posted a message on the Web. He asked what everyone thought about a new Android app that lets customers make purchases quickly and easily. The service he used? It’s called Google+. The fledgling social network has garnered a lot of press. There are millions of active users and several high-profile business owners are generating buzz. Small businesses have a prime opportunity right now to connect with customers, promote your brand, and even find venture capital funding on the service.

“Because Google+ does not yet allow brand pages, you need to look at what you can do to expose your brand,” says Jesse Stay, who wrote the book Google+ for Dummies, out on Wiley Publishing in November. “Google+ is an opportunity for you to open the covers a little and expose what is happening inside. Get employees of your company using Google+ and representing themselves as such.”

Stay says he used Google+ himself while writing the book. He posted sample chapters to elicit feedback. Stay recommends posting nuggets about your business and interesting news stories to engage potential customers. He says, the more you show customers that you are a legitimate company made up of real people, the better. He recommends hiring a community manager tasked with this charter.

Ryan Evans, the president of marketing company Rand Media Group, agrees: the trick is to create your own cult of personality and garner followers. Attracting followers means increasing awareness about your company and every click counts.

The question is: how do you accomplish that goal? Evans says to start with those you know already. Google+ lets you import your existing contacts easily from Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, and other services. You can also import your Outlook contacts.

Then he says to organize contacts into Circles, the Google+ system for grouping contacts. When people are in Circles, you can post a message to all business partners, or to venture capitalists, or just one or two social networking gurus. Facebook uses a similar group post function, but it’s more complicated.

Evans says one critical step is to not just feed information into the service, but to engage with other entrepreneurs. This means commenting on their posts, tagging them in photos (maybe at your last business meet-up), and using the +1 feature, which is the Google equivalent of a “like” (e.g., public approval) in Facebook.

Going the extra mile
Google+ is a powerful service, but the hype has settled down. Now, entrepreneurs are trying to figure out how to get more value out of the social network. We’ve covered the basics – adding people into Circles, posting regularly. Yet, the experts say there are some proven methods for promoting a brand.

Adam Kmiec is the director of social media at Walgreens, the drug store retailer. Kmiec is a big fan of Google+, and Walgreens – along with Ford and a few others – is one of the few business entities with an approved corporate page.

Kmiec has found that the secret is not always in the sheer number of followers, but the quality of those who are following you. Your engagement level is critical: when you post a news story about your market segment, you want your followers to comment and engage with you, not just read the link. Like Michael Dell, every entrepreneur should illicit feedback and keep comments flowing. Kmiec says it’s critical to keep momentum going, not just post once in a while.

Eventually, Google will offer business pages for every company. (Google+ is currently in a private test for a few select business pages; in the next month or so, everyone will have the opportunity to create a business profile.)

For now, the secret is to be yourself. David Amerland is a search optimization expert, speaker, and book author. He says that customers can sniff out marketing ploys with a snap of their finger and quickly move on to the next post. Instead, Amerland says Google+ presents a gold opportunity for new companies because the service itself is so new – everyone expects you to make introductions.

“Do not market too hard, since Google+ really frowns upon this right now, but go about introducing the company and what it does, why it is there and who you are,” he says. “When you post content online, it has to have some real meaning.”

Amerland cited as example of a law firm that posted a question about what potential clients feel constitutes good service from a law firm. That triggered about 100 comments, which has the dual-purpose of providing valuable feedback and also helped the law firm find out who is participating in their discussions. Of course, it’s also important to “close the loop” on these discussions and start talking one-on-one with those who are taking the time to post comments on posts.

Scott Rayden, the founder of iSearch Media, agrees that Google+ presents a prime opportunity for start-ups. He says people are still flocking to the service to check out what is new and interesting, and entrepreneurs are filling the void by posting the most interesting links and stories.

Rayden advises to engage now on the service and to be ready for when Google+ does open up business pages in the next few weeks, and to be one of the first to create a company page, bringing along those who are already following your activities.

Interestingly, Amerland says this is already the model businesses should use in real life: to make social connections in person, not in a fake way or for marketing, but out of a real interest in existing social circles. Then, once those real connections have formed, people will be ready to become customers of your new business.

In the end, every social network helps. Kmiec says every new company should claim their “place” on every major network – on Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and Google+ and even Tumblr and older nets like Bebo. The more the better.

He says, customers should be able to find your company on multiple networks. Engaging with them, posting interesting news, and following up on comments will help any business to start creating a valuable online presence.

15 tips for increasing your brand on Google+
For those new to the Google+ service, here are 15 tips you can put into practice right away, based on the advice from experts, to increase brand awareness.

1. Use your real name when you register – this creates an authentic presence on the service; investors can look you up by name, and customers want to know it’s really you. Later on, you can create a business page that’s less personal.

2. Create Google+ Circles in a logical fashion: business partners, employees, friends, investors. That way, as you start using the service, you can keep people organized. You can then choose only a select group to view a new post.

3. Engage with other business professionals in an authentic way – read what they post, make comments, and follow their links. When you follow links, comment on them so that everyone knows you read the article.

4. Post occasional coupons and specials – that way, you can see if people are engaging with your posts. Be careful about how often you post specials or you may raise the ire of the Google+ team, who discourages blatant promotion.

5. Send private messages to people who look interesting. You can just type the message, then remove the Public circle and just add one name.

6. Check your notifications on the upper right side of the screen – just look for the red notification alert. You can see who is following you, any new comments, and whether those you follow are following you back.

7. Don’t stop using Facebook. There is a lot of cross-pollination between the social networks. When you follow someone on Facebook or they follow you, check Google+ to see if they are using that service and follow them there.

8. Go ahead and think big. When Michael Dell makes a post, feel free to post a comment and see if he replies. You can even send direct post.

9. Don’t be afraid of negative attention. Posting a counter-argument, especially when it is something you feel strongly about, can generate some buzz. When you do, be ready to support your position with facts and well-developed opinions.

10. Make sure you have entered detailed information about yourself and add some humor. There’s a section in your profile for adding something unique about yourself. Include a recent photo that’s bright and colorful.

11. Use the Sparks feature to track trending topics. Just click Sparks and add a search term. Track these topics and re-post the most engaging stories.

12. Make use of the +1 feature that is now cropping up at many Web sites, including Inc.com. When you see a story you like, click +1 so that everyone knows you read the story and liked it. This increases engagement with like-minded users.

13. Try holding your own Hangout – a feature where you talk in a video chat about a specific topic. Pick a topic that is related to your business – if you run an ice cream shop, try holding a Hangout on the cost of supplies or retail trends.

14. Set aside Google+ time each day – make comments and post new entries, but also search for people to follow. When someone follows you, it’s polite to send a quick thank-you to acknowledge their interest.

15. Stay focused on the task at hand, which is to increase brand awareness. It takes time. You might not see engagement levels rise in just one day or a week, but track how many people comment on your posts over a month.

Any other tips for how to use Google+? Share them in the comments section below.