Social networking is an effective way of keeping in touch with large groups of friends, but it can also be a highly useful and cost-effective business tool.

Businesses can use networks like LinkedIn, Facebook, Ryze, PartnerUp, Twitter and Google Plus to extend their marketing reach, improve customer service, and cut business costs for communication and collaboration.

Today's customers are sophisticated users of digital communications, whether these are delivered through mobile, e-mail, social media or the web. Consequently, social networks are a ready-made communications channel through which businesses can connect and interact with their buyers.

Effective marketing

First of all, social networks can be used to extend the reach of your marketing. One of the great things about social networking is that it can be used to share a number of different types of media and communications, such as videos, images, instant messaging, blog content, and newsfeeds.

This means that, in terms of keeping customers and partners informed about, and interested in, your new products and services, you have a healthy variety of different avenues available to you.

The first step is to set up a business or product page on your social networking site of choice. This can be used to incorporate interesting product shots, background information, and to make as many connections with customers as possible. With Facebook, this means getting people to 'Like' your page.

Add videos and news to your social network

You can then use videos to entertain and inform, and frequently-updated news to broadcast your latest advances: such as new product lines and innovations. One of the strengths of social networks is the fact that users interact with each other, so as a business, if you can get them talking about your products and services, it can help build brand recognition and sales.

When using social networking to share multimedia content, remember to keep in mind the fact that your customers will be using an array of devices to view it. So, ensure that your content works well on all devices and screens, from smart phones to tablet computers, desktops and digital TVs.

Also make sure you identify what is relevant to your customers, and what they would like to see or discuss. Try to use a mode of communication and tone of voice that is consistent with your brand, and the way your customers want to talk. Remember that customers can often be busy, and easily distracted when they are online, so be simple and to the point, and clear in your communication so there are no misunderstandings.

Also ensure you are using other digital channels alongside the main social networking sites - such as Twitter, with its 160 character limit, video site YouTube, photo-sharing site Flickr, and alternative social networks such as LiveJournal and Talkbiznow.

(LiveJournal is more consumer-oriented, whilst Talkbiznow is a social tool intended for business professionals. The site offers applications such as voice conferencing, webinars, report and file sharing, and advertising opportunities.)

Make sure you are linking between your different social networks as much as possible, to maximise your traffic flow, for example having links between Facebook and Twitter, and giving your customers the means to link into social bookmarking tools and services such as DiggIt, ReddIt and Del.icio.us. This will encourage people to share your content and thereby enable you to broaden your reach.

Social Networking for customer service

Secondly, social media can be a highly effective tool for customer service. It can provide a non-threatening avenue through which your customers can contact you. It can also offer them the personal touch, and the ability to defuse customer concerns, irritations and problems.

Using social networks for customer service is a relatively new idea, but the beauty of having an interactive web-based approach is that you can reach a diverse population of customers, and get a deep understanding of their thoughts and mindset.