By Emily Bennington, Monster Contributing Writer

Successful small business owners know that now is the time for planning. There are budgets to create, tax forms to prepare, new employees to hire and - oh yes - the always-pressing question: How can we generate more sales this year than last year?Beyond getting the most from your sales talent, the answer to that question often involves finding more of the right kind of prospects.

So, as you think about yet another plan -- i.e., your marketing plan - it’s a good idea to consider how social media can help you pinpoint and connect with new leads and job candidates.

Social Media Marketing - Demystified

Indeed, by now most business owners know the impact of social media extends well beyond checking in with Aunt Karla in Topeka. However, the confusion frequently kicks in when it comes to understanding social media as a strategic business development tool.

When faced with the challenge of using sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube strategically, many business owners become so overwhelmed with everything they could do that - you guessed it - they wind up doing nothing. Sound familiar?

If so, here are four things to consider as you plan your social media marketing strategy for 2011:

- There are more than 500 million people on Facebook and approximately 200 million on Twitter. Those numbers will only continue to rise and, as any marketer worth their pay check will tell you, it’s much easier to go where your audience is than make them come to you.

- A strong social media presence will also benefit your hiring top talent - whether full-time or seasonal - a critical advantage as the economy recovers and employee turnover ensues.

- Social media gives you the ability to connect directly with customers (and potential customers) around the world, not to mention respond to their questions, amplify their compliments, and diffuse their complaints in real time.

- As long as social media sites are free, they will certainly fit into your marketing budget.

Whether you’re just getting started in social media for your business, or you want to become more intentional in your approach, the following steps will help you enhance your online influence this year.

Define your Social Media Message

Dan Bennett (@d4bennett) is the Digital Strategy Director for JWT, one of the world’s largest advertising agencies. Bennett says that while social media offers businesses a way to “get their voice out there,” it’s critical to first consider what you want to achieve.

Bennett recommends isolating your objectives (e.g. increasing customer loyalty, direct sales, building buzz, establishing yourself as an expert, etc), then consider what benefit you can deliver to your audience on a regular basis.

Once established, you can start picking the main areas you wish to operate in. It is worth noting that in the realm of social media, each channel should be utilised as a means for leveraging communication rather than the constant selling of goods and services when people aren’t interested.

Follow the “70/30” Rule of Engagement

Once your message has been clearly defined, this is where the balance of “consistent engagement” comes in i.e. the point at which you are promotional enough to win sales, but entertaining enough to make people forget that’s your primary objective.

The right balance can be found by following the 70/30 rule. Engage around your business 70% of the time and for the remainder allow followers to gain valuable insight not commonly available. This of course will not always be applicable and should be taken as more of a guideline to help you get started. In fact you may even want to start with a majority of your time being focussed around getting a line of open communication established with your followers and then gradually raise the business portion of your social objectives to the 70/30 rule.

Think Small to Get Big

With so much noise and competition in the social media space, it’s easy to wonder how any small business could possibly stand out. A mistake often made is where businesses tend to talk about things outside of their comfort zone to try and cater to every possible audience.

Instead what they should be opting for is a small focussed route of communication that will attract relevant groups, which will spread based on word of mouth as you would have positioned yourself as an expert in a particular field.

“Stalk with Strategy”

Another way to stand out in the clutter is to use social media to build (and leverage) relationships with your industry’s key influencers.

Relevant strategic partners should be sought out to help generate the right kind of content to engage with. Having these alliances in place will keep the flow of engagement consistent rather than large gaps appearing between communications.

A Final Word of Caution

For as much as social media can do to help you grow your business, it’s important to note the one thing it can never replace: a good product. With a unique innovation in place, which competitors cannot offer — engagement will come naturally.

Emily Bennington is the co-author of Effective Immediately: How to Fit In, Stand Out, and Move Up at Your First Real Job (Ten Speed Press, 2010.) She hosts the popular career blog Professional Studio 365 and is a regular contributor to Monster.com and the college section of The Huffington Post. She can be reached via email at ebennington@msn.com or on Twitter @EmilyBennington.

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