Raise your hand if you have a Twitter account. Keep it up high if you also have a profile on Facebook or MySpace. Can I find you on LinkedIn? Does your name appear on the hallowed pages of foursquare, YouTube, digg or Flickr? What about your work? Is your business on social media? Think about this for a moment. YOU likely have a carefully-cultivated and active social life online. Your friends, family and co-workers have these same accounts. Guess what, folks? Your customers – and those people you want to be your customers – are hanging out and checking in to all of these same sites. Why isn’t your business there with them yet?

To be completely frank, you are completely insane if you haven’t begun to put your business out there in social-land. I don’t know about you, but I do almost everything online now. If I need to buy something for my home, I research the various brands online before purchasing online. I rely on what others say far more than I do on whatever propaganda the company wants to spin on their own site. Past customers are going to tell the truth about whatever it is you’re selling. If your product or service is hot, the world is going to know. If you flat-out suck… we’re all going to know that, as well. People talk – a LOT – on social media sites. Word spreads like wildfire. Companies are literally made or broken all the time simply by what their target audience has to say about them.

This may make you leery, and more afraid to take that plunge. If you believe in what you’re doing, though, why aren’t you putting yourself out there? You obviously started that business or created that service for a reason, right? Isn’t your goal to sell something? How the heck will you ever DO that if you don’t let people know how to find you?

The most important tip I can give you is to never – EVER – treat your professional social media profiles as nothing more than link-bait. Don’t sit there and post links to your specials, sales or blog posts. People will not pay attention. You have to engage your community. Talk WITH them, not at them. If you’re running a special this week on tennis shoes, ask your audience what type of shoe they feel works best for them, followed by a simple link to your sale page. Asking a direct question will nearly guarantee conversation, feedback and clicks.

Personally, I hate the word “followers,” along with the term “fans.” I don’t want either of those things, thanks. I prefer to have friends – and you should, too. Even if you are trying to sell these people something, you really want to engage them as though they are a friend. Draw them in to your circle. Make them feel a part of whatever it is you are trying to do. Let them know their feedback and ideas are important. You are going to win a hell of a lot of loyalty this way, and your community will begin to grow.

Always keep in mind that building a community is NOT about connecting people to you. It’s all about connecting them to each other. Give them the tools and platforms that they need to collaborate and watch the magic unfold. We’ve all seen how one person can make a difference in the world. Can you imagine what can happen when a group of people come together under a common interest? They literally would have the power to change the world.

Shouldn’t your brand be right there cheering them on?