I remember the day like it was yesterday; enjoying a rare face-to-face with a dear friend who is high profile in the world of social networking. 'Why…' she asked, 'are you not on Twitter? I just can't believe that you're passing up the opportunity to meet some of the amazing people who are out there.'  Then, a few months later it was, 'Marla, you have to get on to FaceBook - you must!' I also remember my objections and, as it turns out, they are the same excuses that most small business owners are still using today!

  • I don't have the time.
  • It seems like such a waste of time and energy.
  • What do I have to say that would be of interest to strangers?
  • Why do I care what someone had for lunch today?

I held fast to my beliefs that social networking would eat away at my productivity levels and create disappointment when no one responded to my tweets – until my friend landed a spot on a popular network television morning show as a result of a Twitter relationship.

Looking back all of those years I see how bull-headed I was, but I also know that my reluctance was a fear of the unknown. Today I can say that I've met some wonderful people online, generated business, helped others, and made some great discoveries. Don't be embarrassed if you've been holding back, it's never too late. Jump on the bandwagon and just see what happens!

Ah, but where to begin? While the term 'social media' encompasses much more than FaceBook, Twitter and LinkedIn, these social networking sites are a great place to start for a business owner who would like to dip their toe into the web 2.0 culture. Begin by simply creating profiles on each of these sites.  You will need a very brief bio or write-up about your mission and purpose. LinkedIn is more in-depth but you can take your time filling in the profile information. It took me about 6 months to make my profile complete!

There is a handy 'help' guide on Twitter so you can easily familiarize yourself with the lingo. You can also search how-to videos on YouTube to learn more about creating your profiles and using these sites to their greatest potential.  But here are a few basic tips to get you going.

Two for One! – Your Twitter updates (comments) can feed into your Facebook page. This is great because it shares your ideas and information with both audiences. Here's how.

What to say? This is the one that stumps most people. Remember that social networking is about building relationships, helping others, and letting the world know about what you do and who you are. It's important to infuse your personality into your updates. When people see your personality shine through they are more likely to engage in conversation with you. Be authentic and show your genuine interest in what others are doing and saying. Think about what you would say when you meet someone at a networking event. It's really the same thing; you shake someone's hand, listen to what they have to say, comment, give your elevator speech, infuse some personal information, perhaps a joke or two, exchange information, and stay in touch when appropriate. Do the same thing in social networking.

Tips for content – Do you write articles, blogs, website, newsletter or brochure content? Why recreate the wheel? Take tidbits of information from the work you've done and create short posts from them. 
When you see a statistic, quote, blog post or point of interest, share that information in one of your posts. If you're interested, odds are someone else is as well. Always give credit to the original source of the information.

Retweet – When someone tweets something that you find interesting, hit the retweet button. It's a great way to share information.

Connect, connect, connect – This is not about finding only people you know. Do a search on topics of interest, read the comments and connect to people who interest you. People who are new to social networking often worry about why someone is connecting to them and what their intentions are. That's what it's all about. Check their profile and if it seems sane – simply connect and see what happens!

How much personal vs. business? My rule of thumb mix is about 20% personal, 40% business, and 40% interaction with others. That's what works for me, but it's important to do what makes you stretch just beyond your comfort zone, yet still feels authentic.

How much time should I spend on social media sites? This depends on your goal. If it's simply to get acquainted and see what happens, try 15-20 minutes 3 times a week. If you wish to build relationships, find resources, and gain business, then at least an hour a day may be required. There are many tools available to keep you organized and efficient on Twitter; twitterfeed, tweetdeck and hootsuite are amongst the most popular. Don't worry about using these until you've become proficient; just know they're there waiting for you!

How do I know if it's working? Success is measured in many ways and like most marketing much of it isn't directly measureable. I know that my presence on social media sites is working for me because I enjoy it; I've made it manageable, met great people, learned a lot, found good resources, and gained clients.

How do I find the time? Schedule your social networking time just like you would an appointment. Put it in your calendar and stick with it. Consider it marketing and know that it takes practice. I usually combine checking my email and checking out FaceBook, LinkedIn and Twitter - I schedule these activities into timeslot somewhere in my day.

Stay safe. Facebook has new privacy and terms of use language in place  - know that your information is not private on any social networking site. Don't talk about going on vacation and boarding the dogs, the broken lock on your front door, or think that your comments about an issue – or goodness forbid - someone else are not going any further. Use the common sense approach.

Have fun! Don't spend time worrying about someone disagreeing with you or thinking you're dumb. Get used to it, these things happen. But isn't that what makes this world such an interesting place? Everyone has an opinion and varying viewpoints. I find the social networking environment to be friendly and forgiving overall – enjoy it, make friends and just see what happens!