I have this unrelenting suspicion that people deeply, innately, in every fiber of ourselves need to be connected. Radical, I know.

I recently went back to Princeton for my college reunion and spent 48 hours either with people I hadn’t seen or spoken to in many years and yet because of Facebook and LinkedIn still felt oddly knowledgeable about, or with people I had actually never met but again felt oddly knowledgeable about through the sheer quantity and intensity of the virtual communications we shared. As inevitably strange situations and new sensations came and went at my reunion (because reunions are kind of wonderfully odd), I couldn’t escape constant little reminders of how the new technologies we’ve so quickly become immersed in, are playing a role not only in our need but also our ability to be connected.

While I was on campus, I gave a lecture on social media marketing (and giving a “lecture” at my alma mater was certainly odd for me in so many ways). We looked at the Susan Boyle phenomenon. Note that according to The Telegraph the episode of “Britain’s Got Talent” in which Susan Boyle debuted (it was the show’s season premiere) had was viewed on television by 11.8 million people. But in just a few days, the video of that same show on YouTube had generated more than 80 million views. That’s TV 11.8 million, YouTube 80 million. Anyone who grew up with television as the quintessential mass medium may need to take a moment just to absorb that fundamental shift.

And more and more people have a nagging suspicion that things like Susan’s YouTube video are stark examples that social media tools really are changing the way that we communicate, and wondering what to do about it.

I agree with this suspicion because I think such change is inevitable.

What we now call “social media” are just the latest in a long and continuing evolution of communication tools. From smoke signals to Morse code to radio to television, each new tool we invent changes the way we communicate.

If you imagine with me for a moment, communication tools shifting over time in four respects:

  1. who sends the communication
  2. who receives the communication
  3. the ease of communication
  4. what’s in the communication

we seemed to have had a long progression toward an ever increasing number of recipients from tools like Morse code (only a few people can send complex messages to a few other people, so presumably senders and recipients are chosen carefully as are the messages they send) to tools like television (once the infrastructure is built, a few people can send messages to massive quantities of people relatively easily and so senders are chosen carefully while the recipients not so much & the messages can be drivel or not).

But Social Media seems to have taken this progress on a new path where we are growing not just in the numbers of recipients but also of senders. Large numbers of people can now relatively easily reach large numbers of people, as if we are each our own publishing house.

But the tools go beyond that too. In the past large numbers of recipients meant one-directional messages — you could reach lots of people but they were passive recipients of your information. Now, these large numbers are also interactive. You can reach out to lots of people and every single one of them can immediately reach back. Instead of controlled, one-directional messaging, these tools enable a constantly evolving, living dialogue on a huge scale.

In it’s novelty, just the fact that the power to create large scale dialogue is in the hands of individual people is kind of amazing. As a business owner though, the fact that you can now communicate interactively and regularly with 10 or 1,000 times more people can seem overwhelming.

There is a middle ground.

In the 1970’s a sociologist named Mark Granovetter introduced a concept called “the strength of weak ties.” It is the idea that as we reach beyond our closest friends and families, we have “weak” but vitally important ties that connect us to other people and their networks and the important information and opportunities that those networks hold. It is far more often through the networks of our “weak ties” for example, that we get referrals for business and find opportunities for new jobs.

What’s amazing for small business owners about these new social media tools is that they are incredibly good at empowering individual people to efficiently and inexpensively maintain a far larger number of “weak ties”.

Half the battle of being a successful business is just making sure people remember your business and what you offer when it’s time to make a purchase or a referral. Through social media tools, a business can stay connected to a larger number of “weak ties” and the networks they belong to, have access to the information and opportunities in those networks, and do it better and faster.

By helping you maximize those weak ties Social Media Marketing provides small businesses with a powerful tool that doesn’t need an overwhelming amount of complexity to be useful. Its power is based on the simple human desire to be connected and the tools that now exist to enable you, as an individual to fill that desire.

Here are a few steps for how to maintain your sanity while using social media tools effectively.

  1. Learn the differences, know what each tool is good for
    Each social media tool has its own personality, its own community of enthusiasts, its own speed and frequency. Take the time to learn them. Log on, create a personal profile and “lurk” for a while. Invite a few close friends and start to interact. Join groups that are of personal interest to you and watch how people share information. Learn first-hand how the tool is used by others before using it for your business.
  2. Stay focused on your goals and know your audience
    While social media tools can reach millions of people as they did with the Susan Boyle video and for the Obama campaign, for most small businesses, reaching millions of people is just not the point. Don’t get sucked into the hype and forget that. Perhaps you need to find and build a few key relationships, or reach a few tens of thousands depending on the scale of your business. Figure out who & what you’re looking for and stay focused.
  3. Don’t reinvent the wheel (yet)
    What’s already working for you? You don’t necessarily need to use social media in a completely different way if you’re not trying to reach a completely different audience. If you know what works with your audience now, start by figuring out how to achieve similar results but within the context of these new tools.
  4. Don’t spread yourself too thin
    You don’t necessarily need to be active in all places at once. While Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are the hot spots of the moment, spend some time figuring out which ones will give you the greatest access to your audience and start there.
  5. Don’t sweat it and don’t rush it
    Honestly everyone is still figuring out the best way to use social media tools. Heck, the sudden explosion of these tools themselves shows that people are still figuring out how best to use the Internet! Don’t give in to the feeling that you’ve missed the boat and rush into something that you’ll have to back pedal on later. Take the time to learn and do what’s right for you and your business.

Maisha Walker is the Founder & President of message medium, a 10-year old New York City Internet Strategy firm that focuses exclusively on Small Businesses. You can follow Maisha on Twitter or learn about her upcoming Web site and Internet Marketing Classes.

AvatarMaisha Walker

Maisha Walker Founder & President, message medium http://www.messagemedium.com About the author: Maisha is the Founder & President of message medium, a 10-year old New York City Internet Strategy firm that uses Web site development, Internet marketing and hands on training to help small businesses boost traffic and win customers. Maisha is a sought after author, speaker, panelist, and teacher, and has been featured in national publications including Inc., Entrepreneur, Black Enterprise and The New York Enterprise Report. Find out about her upcoming free, small business Web site and Internet Marketing classes. Maisha has also taken her more than 13 years of work with more than 400 businesses, and compiled it into the Web Site Fundamentals workbook specifically designed to help small business owners get online professionally and profitably.