Business people across industries and up and down organizational charts are buzzing about the merits of social networking. To gather state-of- the-art information about this timely topic, I interviewed an expert in the field. Dan Schawbel is a leading personal branding expert for Gen-Y and the author of the upcoming book Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success. His Personal Branding Blog is ranked among the top 50 marketing blogs in the world by AdAge. Dan is currently a social media specialist for EMC Corp.

David Javitch: Can you tell me about the trend that has employers hiring employees to take on social networking duties?

Dan Schawbel: It's a major trend that's been growing significantly, especially in the past three years. Conversations are happening and they'll happen with or without you; your choice is whether to participate or ignore this technological tidal wave. Due to the current economy, there are clear restraints on marketing budgets, so free social marketing is the best alternative. As companies grow and social networking continues to expand, the entrepreneurial boss simply cannot devote all of the time needed for a successful effort. He or she needs to hire someone else dedicated to assume this responsibility. This person will be the internal community manager who will create, monitor and transfer information about the company between and among employees who have a voice and can influence or build the corporate brand.

Externally, the community manager will reach out to current and potential customers. This person will spark interactive conversations, market products or services, and invite responses. In terms of public relations, this social media maven will protect and promote the company's brand with customers and future employees, and help with the corporate blog and social network strategy.

Javitch: What's the benefit of hiring an employee who manages the business's Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and other social networking accounts?

Schawbel: When it comes to social networks, readers have a high expectation that sites will be refreshed and updated often and on a regular basis. As I said, the entrepreneur doesn't have time for this, yet the responsibility is overwhelming, so someone needs to do this. This employee needs to be a content producer, presenting current data, information, or video for weekly visitors to the site. The community manager does more than simply create a site; he or she needs to work hard to make it an attractive, interactive community where readers will consistently go and encourage their friends, social groups, and networks to go as well. The major benefit here is that this network employee will reach out and interactively communicate with various communities; the business owner simply will not have time to do this successfully.

Javitch: Can you list what social networking a small business should be doing now?

Schawbel: Small businesses should at least be involved in the largest social networks, belong to forums and have at least one blog. Each of these websites is a way of positioning yourself and your company to the world. You can create a video, respond to questions or problems or start a discussion. For instance, when someone joins your Facebook group, the word spreads virally through that person's newsfeed. Remember, people want to join groups; they want to meet people and buy products or services based on their friends' recommendations.

Setting a Google Alert for your name and company's name is highly encouraged. When someone blogs about you, your company, or your products and services, you'll be notified immediately through either e-mail or RSS [feed]. Then you can use their name to get back to them for further interactive communication.

You also need a profile page on Facebook. It will tell readers about your company, people, service or product. Remember, people are searching for information; give them what they're asking for. And above all, the process is free; the only cost is your time.

Javitch: Do the different sites require one "community networking" employee to manage? Or does it also work to spread out such duties among many employees?

Schawbel: If you're Coca-Cola, then you need a team. If you're a sole practitioner, you have to do it yourself. However, whether you have five or 50 employees, delegate the responsibilities. Let's say you have three people you trust as social networkers; you can have individuals responsible for specific sites. But you have to make sure you don't dilute the message or cause repetition of effort with several people creating different versions of the same data. This delegation of responsibilities needs to be properly coordinated.

Javitch: What "bare bones" networking should small-business owners be doing on their own (if they can't hire someone to do it for them) that will help them market their business?

Schawbel: Small-business owners should get involved in social sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Friendfeed. They need to go where the people are to promote themselves, recruit and maintain a relationship with specific communities, while obtaining new customers and building bigger communities. They need to draw accounts into their world. Above all, the owner must have specific goals in mind in order to strategize about what he or she wants to get out of these efforts. Is it to increase business by 500 more customers? Increase visibility? Sell more products or services? Without specific goals, the owner won't be able to determine if the social networking process was a success or a failure.

While getting on these social sites, business owners must protect their name so no one else can use it. This includes claiming your identity on social sites before competitors do or people with the same name do. These sites have a high Google PageRankT, which means they'll appear in the top results when someone Googles your name or your company's name.

Javitch: Can you break down which blogs, FaceBook, Twitter, MySpace, etc., are most popular to the separate generations? Business owners who target a certain age market need to know which social network to invest time in.

Schawbel: MySpace has over 185 million users, split evenly between men and women 14 to 34 years old. Twenty-five percent of them are in the U.S. FaceBook has over 110 million readers, more women than men. The majority of these users--80 percent--are under 30 years old and half of all FaceBookers are located in the U.S., Great Britain and Canada.

LinkedIn has over 26 million readers, with the average age being 41. Men make up 64 percent of the audience. Their average household income is $109,000. Twitter has 3 million readers, two-thirds of whom are men 18 to 34 years old.

Armed with this information, marketers can more effectively target specific age, income and geographic groups.