Business professionals attempting to keep up with evolving trends and technologies are finding social media poses additional challenges in understanding how to truly unleash its benefits. Social media is a term that refers to web-based tools, specific sites and practices that people use to interact and share information online, developing virtual communities and niche markets.

Research firm Netpop’s recent study suggests usage of social media has increased by 93% since 2006 and continues to rapidly expand. Over a hundred million Americans are users, accounting for 76% of the broadband population. In Canada, more than 68 per cent of companies view social networking as the next step in collaborative activities and technology for business, according a survey by Coleman Parkes Research Ltd., a U.K.-based market research firm.

Well known social media sites include: LinkedIn and Plaxo (contact management), Facebook and MySpace (personalized info sharing), WordPress and Twitter (blogs and micro-blogs), Digg and Delicious (content sharing and bookmarks), YouTube (shared video), Wikipedia (editable encyclopedia) and an entire new crop of sites that are launched daily.

If you want to dip your toe into the exciting but vast ocean of social media, which site do you choose and what do you say when you’re there? It can be overwhelming to a newbie and definitely confusing for many executives who aren’t on the net daily for their jobs. However, most business professionals recognize the importance of getting involved or being left behind.

I have been working in the ever expanding area of marketing and PR for the past fifteen years, and continue to witness “best practice” in engaging an audience change and evolve.

Truth is, there is no magic formula and the bullseye is different for every organization. Each company and industry has its own set of circumstances to which a certain social media platform may or may not be relevant.

As communicators telling our companies’ stories we recognize that at minimum it’s imperative to have a decent website and connect with our market online or risk ceasing to exist in the global economy.

The Internet has become an integral part of our daily lives, professionally and socially, providing marketers with the incredible opportunity to target niche markets without spending a fortune.

The web has given every person a voice and the ability to spread a message to hundreds if not thousands with as little as one Tweet or blog post. This is serious power in the hands of the well-networked consumer. Wouldn’t you like this person blogging or Tweeting positively about your business?

Now that we have established why it is important, how do you know what method is right in order to reach people that are already talking about your company or could be new customers, investors and supporters?

Social media isn’t simply about giving an opinion and it certainly isn’t about the sale, its ultimate purpose is to share meaningful information that educates or entertains and engages others on a specific topic.

If you join a networking group through LinkedIn for example, after observing the posts and people involved, when you have something to add that’s of value and contributes to the conversation, jump in. A few posts later people will get to know you, and trust that you have knowledge or expertise on a particular subject.

LinkedIn also has a “Recommend this person” feature which allows people in your network to post a professional recommendation on you that could lead to new contacts and opportunities. You can also see your contacts’ networks and meet someone that could become a potential partner, vendor or customer.

A popular blog search engine http://technorati.com/ helps with learning what popular bloggers are doing and how they are doing it.

Once you have a topic to blog on, whether it’s for your business or a hobby, http://wordpress.com or http://blogger.com are sites where you can start a blog for free. Another advantage with blogging is that it increases your search engine ranking as the content is fresh and Google loves fresh material.

All it takes is a bit of research to get your bearings, a topic that you know about and away you go. Plaxo and LinkedIn are two of the easiest sites to join for business purposes, as you can start off slowly and gradually build out your network.

In summary, social media is a powerful way to increase business and investment opportunities, however it can be intimidating and time consuming. As with any marketing effort, it is crucial to conduct it with integrity and a high degree of professionalism. Nothing spreads a message, either good or bad, faster than online word of mouth.