By Ashley Fryer,@PortfolioComms, Portfolio Communications

Social networking is the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the recession. It’s a whole new 21st century resource: a free, direct connection to your desired audience – provided you hold their attention.

Think of social networking as one big conversation – if you’re engaging with the right people, you’re on the right track. Engaging with your network – that is, colleagues, customers, clients, prospects and contacts, industry media and competitors – is fast becoming a hard wired necessity of business practice. Networking platforms, or social media, facilitate easy and direct communication.

They enable people and businesses to decide what’s newsworthy. Social media provides the tools for anyone to set their own news agenda. Furthermore, effective use of social media cultivates engaging dialogue with businesses, which can in turn increase brand awareness, popularity and ultimately revenue.

Tweet your way to the top

Many businesses are growing their online presence through Twitter. The power lies in a tweet’s succinct nature – so keep it simple, to-the-point and always interesting. Twitter is about more than just announcing company news however – it’s about engaging with your networks and projecting the personality of your business. In a B2B environment, it’s easy to forget that the people who in your network are people too, so the occasional tweet about a sunny day, or an event in the office makes a nice change to break up the flow of business tweets.

Wherefore art thou, followers?

Building a targeted follower base can be a slow process, but keep working on it. Though the B2C industry is arguably ahead in the uptake of Twitter, the B2B community is picking up tricks. With richer measurement tools available, B2B companies are seeing the value of social networking. If you can offer people valuable content, interesting comment on news, and the occasional anecdote to make them smile, your follower base will gradually begin to grow.

The key is to follow individuals and organisations with an interest in what you do and say. Interested people will not only follow you back, they’ll actually read your tweets, share them and engage with you, giving you visibility in their network of followers. Seek out influential tweeters and bloggers to help spread the word for you. In a social network someone’s always listening – so bring something of value to the conversation and it will be shared.

Engage with followers regularly and retweet anything interesting. This indicates you’re listening and it flatters the original tweeter. Why not arrange a ‘tweet up’ (a physical get together) with people in your network? Use hashtagged keywords to find others with similar interests to your offering, and keep track of people who are tweeting about specific events or news stories that interest you. Also use websites such as Twiends.com to find targeted followers and keep tabs on your social media influence score using Klout.com.

Rocketing through Real Time

Twitter can also be used as an industry thermometer to identify what issues are hot and enabling you to join the conversation. Alternatively, track what’s being said about your business. It takes seconds to search on Twitter’s home page to find tweets mentioning your organisation or product. It’s a great customer service tool, highlighting complaints, compliments, and general feelings, enabling you to decide what proactive action needs to be taken. Remember, addressing negative tweets shows you are listening and care about customer service. Don’t be afraid to engage – it has a greater effect than you might think. Stepping outside the limits of 140 characters, you can find other B2B social networking opportunities on sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

Facebook – Hitting the Like Button

B2B businesses create profiles as an additional way to connect with their networks. The impact of the ‘Like’ button on brand loyalty has been significant. Integrating brands into the day-to-day dialogue of Facebook means that businesses can track customers and fans, reinforcing brand commitment. Facebook users are all too happy to identify with brands they approve of. Furthermore, those that ‘like’ a business page sees the status updates of that business in their home feed. News, reviews and blogs go directly to these target audiences, widening your network and increasing your chance of influencing others. Consider listing your business geographically on the Facebook app and combining it with advertising. That way, when followers are nearby, they can ‘check in’, effectively advertising your business on their own networks.

Linking In with LinkedIn

LinkedIn recently reached a milestone of 100,000,000 members. Growing at the rate of 1,000,000 users a day, it’s now the largest professional social network on the web. As the name suggests, the network is about business connections –previous and current. The key is using those connections to help you in your professional life, by seeing who knows who. You can use this to get introductions to people you want to speak to, as you are using your mutual connection as a conduit. Profiles should give good overview of your business and be updated regularly with news, blogs and latest tweets. When recruiting, search for people with key skills you’re after. For new business, identify ideal targets, and again, see who in your network could introduce you. Create events, announce appointments and celebrate successes on your company profile.

LinkedIn is also great for taking the professional pulse of your industry. By joining groups in your sector, following businesses that interest you, sharing news and comments, you’ll get ideas and insights about the market and all its components, which can even drive business change. LinkedIn Today is a new functionality which aggregates news conveniently in one place, while LinkedIn Signal tracks key words in status updates, allowing you to track who is sharing what in real time. Employees can also be linked to a business profile, once again increasing the size of your network and thus your audience.

Where to from here?

The traditional media landscape is evolving. While journalists and media companies once decided what was newsworthy, social networking technology not only keeps us connected to our networks, but to decide ourselves what’s newsworthy to us. With marketing and PR budgets still not safe, free social networking will continue to be a popular tool in business. News is delivered directly to your desired audience; customers now have the unique opportunity to engage directly with business, telling them what they like and what they don’t. The key is for businesses to listen to their audiences and react accordingly .