Not long ago, Anthony Russo was paging through the Q&A section of LinkedIn, where members pose questions on a wide variety of topics. "Someone asked how to manage a sales force spread among three different countries," he recalls.

Russo is an account executive at Great America Network Conferencing, which provides both teleconferencing and Web conferencing services that can keep a geographically dispersed group working as a unified team. "I provided information on how Web conferencing can help," he says.

Will his answer lead to a sale? It just might. For the past six months, Russo has used LinkedIn, primarily by answering other users' questions, to find new customers. "So far, I,ve closed four sales, found a contact that led to another sale, and I have three or four in the works that may turn into sales," he says. When it comes to generating his own leads, he adds, "LinkedIn is how I make most of my contacts."

For many small and mid-size businesses like Great America Network, social networking sites are a great way to build a customer base, if you know how to use them effectively. These are dizzyingly varied, from < ASmallWorld (a 150,000-person invitation-only network for the very wealthy), to huge general-interest networks such as MySpace and Facebook, to business sites such as Xing and Inc.'s newly launched small business networking siteIncBizNet, to dedicated sites such as Sermo, open only to physicians. Any of these may be the best site for you, depending on your particular product and goals. LinkedIn, with 14 million users and a definite focus on business, is often a good first stop if you're looking to increase your customer base.

Getting the Most Out of Your Network

For most social networks, the signup process is fairly straightforward. Once they've signed up, though, many users are baffled as to how to turn their social network membership into a means of generating sales. If you're wondering the same thing, here are some strategies that can help.

1. Get at least 65 contacts. "With 65 contacts, you'll really start seeing the power of social networking," says Jason Alba, author of the newly published I'm on LinkedIn -- Now What? A Guide to Getting the Most Out of LinkedIn (Happy About). Some sites have built-in ways to help you increase your contacts, allowing you to search for former classmates or co-workers. Another strategy is to issue invitations to business contacts and other acquaintances as you meet them. This may seem unnecessary -- after all, you already know them. "But you don't know who they might have in their network," Alba says.

2. Make your contacts as diverse as possible. If most of your 65 contacts work at the same company, or in the same tight-knit industry as you, you may already know most of the people they do. So, though it's counterintuitive, adding contacts who are outside your industry or usual circle of acquaintances can be more powerful than adding contacts inside your industry.

3. Offer good information. If, for instance, Russo were to post "Do you know anyone who's interested in purchasing Web conferencing?" not only would he receive few answers, his question would probably be flagged as inappropriate by several other members, leading to automatic removal.

Likewise, when responding to questions, he says, "I answer with all kinds of information. If every answer I gave was about Web conferencing, I might lose credibility."

4. Focus on creating a real-life relationship. When Jason Alba finds that one of his social networking connections knows someone he'd like to reach, he will usually pick up the phone and call his contact. "Social networks are not a way to replace relationships," he says. "When you can, step outside the technology and talk on the phone, or face to face."

Sometimes, social networking is most effective as the last step in the lead-hunting process. "Social networking is useful, but only as part of the process," explains Barbara Finer, who recently left a small consulting firm to become director of product marketing for the small and mid-size business sector at 3Com. "First, I'd use other sources to learn of companies I would target for my services. Then I'd look to see who in my network might know someone."

Remember, Alba adds, "Relationship development does not happen because of a Web site. It won't find your leads for you, and it won't close deals. Social networking is a tool; it's not a silver bullet."