Social networking tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, Windows Live, and Google Buzz, are great for keeping in touch with friends and family and having fun. Once banned from the business world, they are now being allowed or even embraced on many company networks. Some employees use social networking as a quick break from work. Studies have shown that taking short breaks can make workers more productive, and hopping over to your Facebook page for five minutes to check friends’ activities can be a quick and efficient way to “get away” mentally, even if you need to stay physically in place.

Other people are going further and using social networks to build business relationships with colleagues and potential clients. LinkedIn is specifically targeted to that audience. And some are taking it further still and using social networking sites to actively promote themselves and their businesses. This can be particularly effective for self-employed people, such as consultants, writers, and trainers. Many more would like to utilize these tools to increase their business presence but aren’t sure how to go about it. In this article, we’ll look at ways — beyond the obvious — to enhance your reputation (and your company’s) through social networking. After all, it’s long been recognized that word of mouth is one of the best forms of advertising, and social networking is just an online extension of that.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Just showing up is not enough

There’s a saying that “Just showing up is half the battle.” But it’s important to remember that it’s only half. Too many people get stuck at that point. They show up; they set up accounts on a dozen or more social networks — but then they let them languish and never post. People check those sites, see no new content, and after a while give up. Having a “dead” page is worse than having no page at all.

The primary reason people let their social networking sites die is lack of time. Be sure you have the time to devote before you set up a business-oriented site, and have a posting plan (for example, a reminder to yourself to post something every other day). Stick to the plan! Many people get overwhelmed because they take on too many social networks at once. If your time is limited, choose just a few (for example, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter).

2: Just because you build it, that doesn’t mean they’ll come

Even if you faithfully update your social networking pages every day and blast out clever and useful tweets from morning ’til night, it doesn’t matter much unless you have followers and friends to see those promotional masterpieces. Before you can use your social networking sites to promote yourself and your business, you need to promote those social networking sites themselves.

Privacy is a big issue when you’re sharing personal information on social sites, but for business, the more open your site is, the better. To get maximum exposure, configure your privacy settings to let everyone see what you post, not just the people who are already your followers or friends. But before you do that, be sure to read the next item in this list.

3: Separate your business and personal online lives

If you’re serious about promoting your business self, you need to set up a separate social networking “place” for business-related posts. I have separate Twitter accounts for different purposes and one Facebook account for friends and family with another one for my readers and business colleagues. Another alternative is to use one social network (such as Facebook) for socializing and another (such as LinkedIn) for all your business networking.

The key here is that you want to present yourself as a professional when promoting your business, and it’s hard to do that if your old college buddies are posting things on your wall about all the hard partying you did when you were in school.

4: Use aggregator apps to better manage your social networks

One way to manage your social networking accounts is to visit each site on a daily or other regularly scheduled basis. An easier way is to use tools such as TweetDeck that let you see and manage multiple SN accounts all at once, without going to the Web sites and logging in each time. It’s a great time aver and lets you see all your updates “at a glance” in different columns, as shown in Figure A. When you’re doing it all from one app, it’s much easier to remember to post to all of your social networks on schedule.

Figure A

Aggregator apps let you manage multiple social networks at once.

5: Don’t flood the market

Posting regularly is important, but it’s just as important not to over-post. If you use an aggregator app that makes posting easy, you might be especially tempted to fire it up in the morning and send out five or 10 posts all at once on all your networks. It’s much better to space them out throughout the day, so that your followers and friends don’t get overwhelmed or lose interest in what you have to say after seeing several posts in a row from you. Facebook, for example, will hide some of the posts in your friends’ feed if there are many in a row from the same person, so they might not even see them all if they don’t explicitly click the link to see more.

A nice feature in TweetDeck (the PC version, not the more limited iPhone/iPad version) is that you can enter a post and then schedule it to be posted later, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

Some clients, such as TweetDeck, allow you to schedule updates to be posted later.

6: It’s not all about you

Maybe you think that since you’re promoting yourself (or your business), all you need to do is post about what you’re doing. I see people who put out post after post about themselves but never seem to participate in the discussions or otherwise indicate that they’re also reading their friends’ posts.

Social networking is designed to be interactive — it’s most effective when you don’t just use it as a broadcast medium for one-to-many messages, but also truly interact with your contacts. That means letting them know that you’re reading their posts, whether by posting comments, hitting the Like link, retweeting their relevant posts, or sending direct messages. This is the way you really connect — and it’s those two-way connections that are most likely to benefit your career or business.

7: Strike a balance

The content of your posts counts. While you shouldn’t get too personal, you shouldn’t be too business-like, either. That is, your contacts don’t want to just see post after post about the product or service you provide, until it seems that it’s just spam. They’ll unfollow or “hide” you pretty quickly if that happens.

Let your business associates get to know you a little — the professional you, that is. Post occasionally about your activities that are relevant to your business. For instance, you can post the funny story about what happened to you on the plane on the way to a business conference. Or you can post about the great book you just read about your area of expertise. Even though these don’t directly promote your business, they provide a glimpse of you as a person, without getting overly personal. People like to do business with people they know.

8: Don’t just link

Some people use their social networking sites to post links — lots and lots of links. When those links are relevant to your business, that’s great, but it’s not enough. Think of how you feel when you go to a Web site that’s nothing but links to other Web sites. Do you see that site as a real resource or just as a way station for getting to the real resources?

Use the link as a way to highlight your own expertise and opinions and to (subtly) help promote yourself. If you find a great article about a topic in your field of interest/work, instead of just tweeting the URL, post the URL in your blog along with a one- or two-paragraph summary of your thoughts about the article. What parts are best? Are there statements made with which you disagree? Can you give a real-world example of some concept the article discusses? Then your tweets and FB posts can point to your blog post instead of the original article, which gets you more hits on your blog and more important, makes the readers think of you more as a collaborator/content provider/expert commentator rather than just someone who posted a URL.

9: Dress it up with multimedia

Sometimes, words just aren’t enough — and often they don’t stick in a person’s mind nearly as long, nor as positively, as visual images do. Today’s social networking services make it easy to dress up your posts with more than just text, and those features aren’t just for sharing pictures of your pets and your family vacation.

Are you a consultant, posting about a recent high-profile project? Add a few photos taken onsite (with the permission of the client, of course — who’s likely to be happy to get the free advertising). If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a video worth? Want to promote your reputation as a freelance software developer? How about a video tutorial showing what your latest app can do?

10: Use paid advertising wisely

Many of the social networking sites, such as Facebook, support themselves by taking paid advertising. You can buy an ad; the advantage of this is that it will appear on the pages of people you don’t know. It’s a way to introduce yourself and your business to strangers without sending them friend requests (which many will ignore and consider rude coming from people they don’t know). The key here is to make the ad interesting and intriguing enough to draw them to your own site. Otherwise, it will be ignored, as most online advertising is.

Check out 10 Things… the newsletter

Get the key facts on a wide range of technologies, techniques, strategies, and skills with the help of the concise need-to-know lists featured in TechRepublic’s 10 Things newsletter, delivered every Friday. Automatically sign up today.