There's no doubt that online social networking is huge these days, and it seems everybody wants a piece of the pie. With technology changing so fast, it's easy to get left behind, get confused about what's what, or just try to jump on the band-wagon without any real understanding of what you're trying to achieve.
Ultimately, social networking is just a buzzword to describe any kind of website or application that focuses on connecting people. That's pretty much it. The uptake of such applications has been so huge that it's pretty much revolutionised the way we spend our time online, and the way we communicate with our friends, family, and sometimes our business contacts.
I'm somewhat of an "early adopter" when it comes to online geekery. I was fairly quick to jump on the blogging band-wagon, and likewise with Twitter and Facebook. (Although MySpace with its horrid user-created layouts I never cared for!). Personally, I don't use many of these tools for business purposes (although quite often the line gets blurred). For me, it's more about connecting with people, communicating, and (above all), having fun.
There's certainly something to be said for employing social networking techniques for promoting your business, and there are certainly people who seem to be having success with it. But you need to bear in mind that these tools offer you a unique opportunity to connect directly with potential clients - if you abuse this connection, or simply broadcast a non-stop tirade of advertising, you'll quickly lose that connection and a potential client will turn into just another stranger.
The most important principal to grasp here is that you need to offer something of value to your social networking partners. There's no way I'd follow a company on Twitter unless I'm very interested in their product. So what can they offer me of value? The way to turn me into a loyal customer (and hopefully a buyer) is to offer me relevant content that I'm interested in. That could either be an interesting article about the subject matter, or perhaps a notification about a special offer. For example, I'm a huge movie lover. Say I followed Megasauruxplex Cinemas on Facebook - I'd be quite interested in reading relevant film reviews, and the occasional special offer. But if I feel "crowded", or blasted with advertising I'll switch off immediately - it's as simple as that, and they won't get a second chance.
Then there's that "other" buzzword, Web 2.0. To be honest I'm still not sure what it means, and I don't think many people do. It's really just a vague term thrown about to describe websites that incorporate social networking tools, and to a lesser degree it's used to describe a certain design aesthetic. The internet is constantly changing and evolving, and I guess to some degree that term is useful to describe a shift in the way we communicate online.
Right now it's probably a good time to reference this comic by The Oatmeal, which pretty much sums up the sentiments of web designers and developers everywhere. :)
Blogging is a huge part of social networking, and since its inception it's pretty much taken the web by storm. For my money, this is one of the greatest tools in the Web 2.0 (ugh) arsenal - a real chance to develop quality content and offer something of value to your readers! I've always stuck to the principal that content is king - the more content you have on your website, the more likely you are to attract readers, and this will inevitably filter through to bring you clients. It's also a great opportunity to start a dialogue with others through comments, and if you're open to discussion, you might even learn something yourself.
It's important to really think about how social networking tools will benefit your business, and learn how to use them effectively. Creating a Twitter account is all very well, but there are far too many "faceless" corporate Twitter accounts out there - if you don't have a genuine interest in connecting and giving something back to the public, then you're probably on the wrong track. Following everyone you can find and blasting out mindless advertising will soon make you very unpopular.
Likewise, if you work in an interesting field, and you have the resources and inclination to start a blog, then it's often a good idea. But if you have no interest in writing and don't have the time, then don't bother. There's nothing worse than an outdated "news" section on a website.
So when it comes to social networking, think before you leap! Use it wisely, and the world is your oyster... most of all, get out there and enjoy yourself!