We’ve all heard about the importance of social networking, but what is social networking exactly? A social network focuses on building a group of people who share common interests and activities. In this case, we’re talking about online social networking… the biggest free party in the world. Social networks make it easier for people to interact with each other. But social networking has a lot of outlets (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, LinkedIn), and it can become a time-intense process to effectively track, converse, monitor, and manage them.

But if social networking is so time intensive, why bother? Selling is selling. You can’t get away from that. Social networking doesn’t — and shouldn’t — replace selling. Social networking is part of MARKETING. Selling and marketing are two sides of the same coin. And since coin is what we’re trying to get in your pocket, we need to pay attention.

Small Business Magazine advises, “We all know how important word of mouth is, and social networking is like word of mouth on steroids. As a business, it’s vital to tap into and join online conversations not only about your brand, but also those about your competitors, your industry, and your areas of expertise.”

The social networking tools you choose depend on what you want to accomplish, how much time you can commit, and where your comfort level lies. To simplify things, I’m only going to stick with four basic social networking tools you might find helpful: Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Benefits: Great for keeping in touch with friends and far-flung family…now also used well for businesses.

How to use it: Create a Facebook page JUST for your business, then update it one to two times per week. Join in discussions about topics relevant to your business and customer base. A printer, for example, might join conversations about local area businesses and the chamber of commerce.

Benefits: Terrific for your search engine optimization. A great way to let people know what is going on with your business. Somewhat more personal feeling than a standard website.

How to use it: Lots of great, free blogging tools are available. If you decide to start a blog, you should commit to posting at least one blog entry per week, to encourage repeat readership and maximize the SEO benefits.

Benefits: Short and sweet. Allows people to follow you and get information that is up-to-date and content rich in short sentences.

How to use it: For Twitter, you’ll want to post something fresh every day. Don’t tweet about what you’re doing at the moment. Instead, tweet links to helpful websites and articles people might find fascinating. Follow your competitors and customers on Twitter, and listen to what they’re saying and doing.

Benefits: A great business networking site. Easy and common sense.

How to use it: Add updates at least once per month. Join groups relevant to your business. And answer questions from other members.