People have a tendency to get online at random times and start clicking away. Then something mysterious happens to the space-time continuum, and all of a sudden two hours goes and they have nothing to show for it. But it's fairly easy to avoid falling victim to that trap--have a plan and stick to it!

The key to success with social media is to outline a strategy which considers the amount of time you can realistically dedicate each day to your online marketing efforts. If you plan your activities, use time-saving tools and make sure your ROI expectations are reasonable you'll be in a good position to succeed at social networking.

Find the social network that's right for you.
Everything that follows hinges upon this point. And let me add, it's not all about Facebook. Some businesses will benefit more from concentrating on niche networks that may have less traffic, but more are targeted to that particular brand's consumer.

Planning ahead makes you efficient.
Map out a weekly schedule that outlines the specific days and times you will spend on social media. Figure out what's realistic and what makes sense for your company and go from there. Here's a sample weekly schedule.

  • Everyday: You post one update at 9 a.m., one at 1 p.m. and one at 5 p.m.
  • Mondays and Wednesdays: You dedicate 10 minutes to responding to comments and direct messages at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
  • Tuesdays and Thursdays: You dedicate 10 minutes at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to retweeting people's comments and thanking people for mentioning you or retweeting your posts.

This is just an example, but you should definitely take the time to devise a social media strategy that makes sense for you.

Use tools to save time.
Take advantage of the various social media tools that are designed specifically to save you time. For example, sites like ping.fm, www.seesmic.com and www.tweetdeck.com help you by sending updates to multiple social networking sites, including Twitter and Facebook, with one click.

Some sites--like atomkeep.com--even allow you to link multiple Facebook and Twitter accounts to one desktop application where you can post updates to all profiles, as well as view and respond to your friends' posts. This means no more logging-in to multiple social networking sites.

Also, sites like www.cotweet.com let you schedule updates in advance, so your profiles can be updated even when you're not online. This is a useful tool for all your road-warriors.

Check your ROI expectations.
Once you have a strategy in place, you'll no doubt be anxious to start seeing a return on your social media networking investment. It's very important to remember one thing: Networking takes time. Rather than expecting to see a surge in sales, you should hope to see people interacting with your brand.

Building relationships with people and credibility for your brand doesn't happen overnight.

If your network is a mile wide and an inch deep (meaning you've hoarded followers but they aren't engaged with your brand on a personal level), it will not be successful. Rather than a big pool of followers, it's important that you create a network of depth and meaningful relationships. You do this by being visible and engaging in conversations. Over time, these activities give you credibility; which in turn leads to building your brand and your sales.

Remember these helpful don'ts.
So, you've learned what you should do to carry out an effective and profitable social media campaign for your business, but there are also some things you should be sure to avoid.

Below are the five most common mistakes that people and businesses make when it comes to social media networking.

  1. Spending too much time on sites you enjoy and not fully evaluating whether or not that particular site is the most effective one for your efforts.
  2. Visiting a site for "work" and then running down rabbit holes, getting distracted by interesting posts.
  3. Not recognizing when it's time to delegate certain social media responsibilities to a consultant, agency, or simply another person.
  4. Setting up a blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter page and then not keeping it populated--consistency and fresh content matter.
  5. Forgetting that social media is about engaging in the conversation and not just about selling.