By definition, social media are tools used to socialize. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn and Flickr allow people to connect, comment and share with friends, colleagues and acquaintances and interact online despite geographical boundaries.

Quite frankly, the majority of the people who are using these social media platforms daily are NOT there to discuss business (LinkedIn would be the exception to this rule, but c’mon, how much time do you really spend on LinkedIn?). Small business owners must keep this in mind if they decide to implement these platforms in their marketing strategies. After all, you don’t want to come off as the “suit” who’s crashing the party.

There are different schools of thought on the “appropriate” use of social media for business. One school suggests using ‘The 1/10th Rule’, which means that one out of every ten tweets, posts or updates can be self-promotional, but no more.

Then there are the new media purists who feel that small business owners using social media should not do ANY selling or promoting, but rather treat these tools as a way to engage, interact and build relationships with their audience.

The supposed logic here is that an engaged audience will be happy to patronize companies who have earned their trust, but they don’t want to be bothered by pushy sales messages.

One thing that most of the experts in the field do agree upon is this: Using social media as a purely self-promotional form of direct marketing is not cool.

I see people violating this maxim all the time. Examples include the companies whose entire tweet stream consists of links back to their own site or blog. Or, the Event Promoters whose updates stop abruptly for several months between events. Or, the Social Media Consultants who have only tweeted half a dozen times, and the last one was from April, 2009 – apparently, these consultants fall into the “do as I say, not as I do” category. And the list goes on and on.

So, how should you be using social media for YOUR business? Well, that depends on several things.

Asking Yourself the Following Questions May Help You Decide:

What is our ideal audience using and how are they using it?
Ask your customers. Send a survey to your mailing list. Collect business cards and see if your customers are touting social media profiles. Connect, follow and friend them to see what’s important to them. Conducting this market research will help determine if it will be worthwhile for your company to maintain an active social media presence.

Let’s face it, if your desired audience is NOT active in the social media sphere, there’s no reason for you to be either. And, if they are, you need to meet them on their terms.

What is our objective?
It’s not enough to jump on the social media bandwagon because everyone else is. You must determine HOW to represent your brand via that medium, WHAT messages you wish to send and WHY these tools should be used for your business.

Whether your social media objective is to create greater brand awareness, offer real-time customer service, or share relevant news and advice to your audience, clarifying this before diving in will help keep you on track for the long-term commitment.

How will we measure success?
The primary question in the minds of small business owners is, “How will social media affect my bottom line?” They rightfully want to know what the Return On Investment (ROI) will be. Unfortunately, it’s not as cut and dry as, say, a direct-mail postcard with a redeemable coupon that drives customers into your store.

There are analytics tools that measure how many people read your tweets, interact with your Facebook page, or view your videos on YouTube, but it’s a little trickier to measure the exact conversion rate of those interactions.

Sure, there are books and blog posts by gurus who claim to have it figured out, but their quantum physics-level equations and diagrams are well beyond the scope of your typical small business owners who struggle enough just trying to convey their brand attributes on Facebook.

Therefore, your measurements for success may very well be defined by some of the things mentioned earlier, such as level of engagement, number of views and interactions, improved customer service, increased awareness, etc.

Business is about building relationships between people who have needs, problems or desires and people who offer solutions. The benefit social media marketing offers versus traditional marketing is that it allows a direct, interactive connection with the very people whose needs can be met by your solutions.

Therefore, you must treat that connection with respect and use social media to offer value, accessibility, humanity and interactivity to your audience. If your audience feels like you are giving them a voice, they will sing your praises.

If, however, they are on the receiving end of a one-way sales promotion, they will tune you out. Then, no matter how great your marketing message is, it will be falling on deaf ears.

So, how are YOU using social media for your business?