If you associate social networking with MySpace, debatable language, and photos of kids drinking beverages in red plastic cups, it’s time to rethink the power of this tool.

In short, social networking can facilitate greater connections for your company. These connections can range from internal -- employee-to-employee -- to suppliers to customers and even potential buyers.

According to research conducted by Universal McCann earlier in the year, 43 percent of the active Internet users in the United States have created a profile on a social networking platform, and the numbers are even higher on a global scale. While the demographic of these users skews to the younger side, the concept has evolved to take in business professionals of all ages.

You can think of social networking falling under two categories: the outside world and the organization within your internal corridors.

Let’s start with social networking as a tool to strengthen your ties to the outside world and the ramifications for IT deployment.

While a number of social networking platforms specifically target business professionals, I think it’s fair to say that the product called LinkedIn has the greatest traction with around 25 million users.

The beauty of these products is that they won’t put a dent in your IT budget because there’s no charge. Furthermore, the powering of the application takes place in the cloud, i.e., someone else’s server, so there aren’t any operational costs either.

Where IT can lend a helping hand is by guiding folks through the process of establishing a profile. Better yet, if you have staff members under 25 whom have grown up with these tools, ask them to help the “more mature” people in creating their profiles.

An immediate benefit from a tool such as LinkedIn comes on the recruiting front. For example, roughly 70 million Gen Yers born between 1980 and 1995 are coming to the work force with a mindset that views social networking akin to how older generations saw the phone. Social networking tools allow you to connect with them in their language so to speak.

Targeting potential employees through LinkedIn is made easy with an advanced search option that allows you to select your ideal candidates by a combination of industry, job function, location, job title, experience level, and specific company experience. Candidate profiles are earmarked for those interested in career opportunities to eliminate reaching out to those who would rather not be contacted.

For $19.95 to $50 per month, you can purchase professional memberships that give you the ability to send up to 25 messages per month directly to candidates through InMail. We’ve found that we’re more likely to receive a response from a candidate made through LinkedIn InMail than through regular e-mail outreach.

LinkedIn also offers an inexpensive way to advertise open positions. A single 30-day job posting will run you $195 -- a far cry from the cost of running a print ad -- and there are package deals that reduce that price to as low as $115 per job.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that several social networking products have evolved to straddle the line between personal and business networking, with the best example being Facebook. With this in mind, many staff members at The Hoffman Agency keep both LinkedIn and Facebook profiles.

Here’s an example of the benefits that come from these connections. We subscribe to a terrific service called SWMS (Sam Whitmore Media Service) that essentially analyzes the latest developments in the media. When SWMS decided to distribute “bonus information” via its Facebook page, our employees on Facebook captured the information and distributed it to the rest of the company. To accelerate the process, we’re developing a company Facebook page to handle this type of situation.

Turning attention to the internal side, a new class of social networking platforms has emerged that enables a small business to create what amounts to its own customizable social networking site. In other words, establish the same concept as a Facebook, but just for your employees.

Again, a number of products such as Ning -- which we’ve implemented at The Hoffman Agency -- have been designed for this purpose. Like their outside brethren, these products are powered in the cloud, so there’s no operational impact.

As for pricing, you can run with Ning at no cost if you’re willing to tolerate the smattering of Google Ads. With the exception of the periodic awkward ad -- you can imagine the theme around Valentine’s Day -- we’ve found the free version works fine. For another $7.95 per user you can get rid of most of the ads.

These products provide another way to build a sense of community, especially for businesses in which employees are telecommuting or on the road. In our case, we also have employees in Europe and Asia, so the virtual world or what we call the “HA Hub” based on Ning is the perfect way to bring everyone together.

It’s also worth noting that an internal social network offers a great forum for learning this mode of communications in the safety of your “home.” Of our 50 employees based in the United States, about 15 are older than 40 and had never used social networking before. Thanks to the HA Hub, they have gained experience as a prelude to venturing to the outside world with LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.

With that said, there are some drawbacks with social networking starting with the potential of being deluged by spam. Fortunately, there are products out there as noted in a previous column. In our case, we use a firm called eDoxs (costs around $2.60 per mailbox per month), but there are other reputable firms out there, such as Emerald and LastSpam.

Social networking can also distract an employee who has trouble focusing from the task at hand, but this issue transcends IT.

Here’s how we look at it: It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or have 25 employees focused on a niche, the effectiveness of your overall communications impacts your success and failure.

If you buy into this premise, it’s only logical to put all the tools -- especially one like social networking that’s free and levels the playing field against the big guys -- at the disposal of your employees.

Linda Wilson is the IT director of The Hoffman Agency, a global public relations firm with 120 employees.