If you still think Facebook is for twentysomethings clinging to their college years and Twitter is for people with too much time on their hands announcing what they had for breakfast, think again.
Watch a slideshow of the top 12 Twitter tools.Read about private Twitter alternatives.
Social networks like Facebook (150 million users), Twitter (4.4 million users) and LinkedIn (34 million users) are some of the fastest growing sites on the Internet and they're not being used for aimless chitchat or sharing the latest gossip. (Read a related story on the 12 CIOs who Twitter.)
We're talking busy IT professionals using social networks for serious IT business -- everything from customer service to marketing a product to marketing themselves to keeping up with industry news to getting fast answers to a technical question.
According to a Network World survey of 583 IT execs, 84% said they visit social networking sites on a regular basis, up from 68% last year. In fact, half of our respondents said they visit a social networking site at least several times a week. Only 29% said they visit social networking sites solely for entertainment purposes, and 64% said they are using social networks more than they did a year ago. (Watch a slideshow of 12 tips to safe social networking.)
LinkedIn is the most popular site among IT pros, with 63% of respondents saying they use it, followed by 44% who say they are on Facebook and 14% who use Twitter.
While there are hundreds of social networks out there (Bebo, Plaxo, Plurk, FriendFeed and Jaiku to name a few), most people stick to the big three: Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Comcast (Twitter: @comcastcares) might be the standard when it comes to using Twitter to help customers in need. Long derided for bad customer service, the company is turning that around with its Twitter efforts. Twitter about any Comcast-related issue and you'll likely receive a reply in a few minutes asking if they can help. You can do the same.
Jason Williams, (twitter: @whastupgold) product manager for WhatsUpGold at Ipswitch Software, usesTwitter in a similar fashion to Comcast. He has set up search terms related to his business that he monitors via an RSS feed. If he picks up on a Tweet that might be relevant, he hits reply to engage the person in conversation. "It's a little more of a personal approach," Williams says.
"I've been able to connect with some existing customers as well as people who have Tweeted about network management solutions," Williams says. "I've even gotten a few people to trial our software."
A relatively new feature to LinkedIn is its Groups function, which allows members to share information around a common topic or interest. Set up a group for your company and invite customers and fellow employees to share tips and keep up to date on the latest news coming from your organization.
Facebook offers similar group and fan page (see Network World's Twisted Pair fan club) functions. Members can post comments, photos and more to the site. One caveat to Facebook groups is a lack of notification when something new is published. You have to check back often to see if anything new or interesting is published.
It's not all about your employer. All social networks blur the line between work and personal, which means you can use these networks to build your own brand.