Is social networking just a fad or something your business should take seriously? Below I’ll explain a little about the 3 platforms you probably should have a presence on, the opportunities they present and let you in on a few tips to get you started.

Facebook –

What is it? The essential social networking platform now Myspace is rapidly becoming an also-ran. There are over 500 million users on Facebook, with almost 25 million in the UK, so it’s well worth checking out.

Try it out. Add a page for your company – from a user profile click on more in the left hand menu and select Adverts and Pages. Add an image for your page and your company profile, add at least one post (Notes is quite good for adding official company news; Status Updates for shorter comments) then find some fans.

Why bother? Anyone visiting your page can choose to “like” it and become a follower, your posts will then appear directly on their Facebook profile pages – not a bad communication channel. To start with you should get viral within your own company and social circle – ask colleagues and friends to pass the word around. Then you should announce your Facebook page on your website – it’s usually best to have some followers and some interesting news first though.

Hot tip. Facebook has a growing advertising service which allows you to target by demographics and only pay for traffic- could be very very useful.

Twitter –

What is it? Rather than being a truly social platform, Twitter is an information broadcasting service. This can be pretty useful for a company – if you can get relevant followers. A “tweet” is limited to 140 characters so short bursts with links are the order of the day.

Try it out. Set up an account using your company name. Add a profile image and write a small bio summarising your company, and what you are offering on Twitter. You can customise your Twitter background, choosing from a range of templates and colours or even adding your own background image. Encourage staff, customers and friends to follow you and start tweeting. Your first few tweets could just be latest news announcements but steadily you should build up to tweeting once or twice a day. As soon as you have some interesting tweets you can add a link on your website to gain more followers.

Why bother? People choosing to follow you on Twitter will do so because they want information about your company. Twitter is designed for short announcements and comments, so it’s perfect for one or two key comments a day.

Hot tip. You can follow a number of relevant companies or people in your industry and “re-tweet” their tweets with comments – or take their example and comment on news yourself. Present your company as an expert and gain even more followers. Use hashtags to identify what your tweets are about eg #googleanalytics is one we use when we tweet about Google Analytics.

Linked in-

What is it? Linked in is a business-oriented networking tool that is mainly used for professional networking. Account holders invite other users to join their network – usually because their paths have crossed in business or social lives. Networks are built up by inviting people who may not know you but know someone else in your network. Currently in beta but working well, Linked in allows you to set up a Company page that can have followers and connections.

Try it out. Set up a basic account – all you need is your name and professional email address. It may be worth bearing in mind that an account is supposed to transcend the company you currently work for – since Linked in is also used as a recruiting and job search tool. Set up a company page from your profile – go to the Companies tab and click on Add a Company on the right hand side of the top menu.

Why bother? Linked in is used by business people, it may be the perfect platform if your target market is business to business.

Hot tip. Add your Twitter name to your account and your tweets will appear on your Linked in home page. Your Facebook account can also be linked. A good policy is to ensure you add something to your profile or company page once a week – many users choose to have weekly updates emailed to them, this will make sure you appear on that.

One last thing, as with any marketing, monitor how successful you are and what it is bringing you in revenue terms vs time spent (it can take up a lot of employee time, and can be fun so be careful!). Don’t shout into an empty room!