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If you've jumped on the social networking bandwagon and are wondering "Is this all there is?" don't give up just yet. It's not so much about what you can get out of social networks today but what you can gain tomorrow-- when they become personalized. If you've ignored the social networking trend up until now, consider this handy list your set of training wheels.
- Read 10 blogs. Sign up for a Bloglines account and search for and subscribe to 10 blogs about social networking; you can return to your page on Bloglines to read all the new content. Of course, you can add blogs about your industry and interests here, too.
- Comment on 10 blogs. Posting relevant comments on blogs you read is a simple form of social networking. It's also a good way to get extra visitors to your site or blog.
- Join Facebook. You'd be surprised at how many of your existing contacts have Facebook accounts. With its rich set of tools and large community of active users, Facebook is a great place to observe how people interact in social networks. Once you get your feet wet, you can use Facebook to connect with business contacts you don't bump into often.
- Create a MySpace page. This service is embraced primarily by musicians and the younger set, but it's a great tool for learning how to build a presence outside of your website. It also happens to have a large underbelly contingent, so be warned.
- Join LinkedIn. This service has been called "the Facebook for business." It's about meeting and connecting with like-minded businesspeople, and it's great for making connections with people who may otherwise be out of reach.
- Visit Ning. This is the largest custom social networking service that allows you to create your own community using a variety of tools branded to match your current site.
- Create a Workbench profile. This tip is a little self-serving, as this is my new social business networking site, but it's a good example of the next wave of personalized business communities for entrepreneurs.
- Create a Twitter account. Twitter is pretty silly on the surface: It gives you up to 160 characters to tell your network what you're doing right now. It feels like a giant waste of time, but a large and active community has formed around this kind of microblogging, and you should understand how people are using it.
- Create a StumbledUpon profile. This social network is built around discovering and recommending sites you like. Active stumblers can send a lot of traffic your way.
- Create a Digg account. Keep updated with what's happening in the world of business and join other users by submitting content and voting on what you consider most important.
Also consider Flikr, Mixx and Squidoo as places to find and develop niche communities when you're ready to really get out there. Think of Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace as your labs--get in there and experiment for the future. Then start planning your own personalized social business network.
John Jantsch is a veteran marketing coach, an award-winning blogger and the author of Duct Tape Marketing: The World's Most Practical Small Business Marketing Guide. Find out more at ducttapemarketing.com.