If distributors think joining a social networking site to promote their company is outside their comfort zone, then it's time to get uncomfortable.

Once the domain of teenagers and college students, social networking sites have expanded their reach to adults and business owners over the last few years. In fact, the most rapid growth in social media use today is among consumers 35 and older, according to Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based technology and market research company.

Economic conditions have companies cutting back on advertising dollars and exploring alternative means of generating exposure for their business. Many industries are turning to social networking sites to increase their Web site traffic, create new business opportunities and even generate leads. And best of all, opening an account on these sites is free.

If still not convinced that social networking is a viable marketing tool, or if interested in joining the social media frenzy but don't know where to start, here's a look at three popular social networking sites and how other jan/san companies are reaping the benefits.

Face Time On Facebook

Currently, Facebook (www.facebook.com) is the world's largest social network with more than 350 million users. Like many Facebook followers, Bill Yeadon, training director for Jon-Don, Roselle, Ill., was introduced to the site by his children.

"My daughters said I need to be on Facebook and got me talked into it about a year ago," he says.

Yeadon started a Jon-Don fan page, which is updated regularly with company events and practical articles on spot removal. In addition to posting fresh content, the company saves time by posting content originating from its Web site blog, which is maintained by three writers.

"What [social networking] allows small businesses to do is have the marketing tools of a large company without the expenditures," says Yeadon.

Another company reaping the rewards of its Facebook page is Charlottesville Sanitary Supply, Charlottesville, Va. Since joining in late 2009, the company has attracted more than 1,000 "friends" and uses its page to post tips and photos of its showroom and new products.

"It's another way for us to generate interest in the company and get our name out there," says John Vermillion, the company's vice president. In fact, photos posted of the company's vacuum lines have generated a few sales.

Distributors can also post video clips to showcase products or demonstrate their use. Cory Powell, director of capability and Mandy Hendrix, marketing communications manager for JanPak, Davidson, N.C., use Facebook to post videos of suppliers' new products or innovative ideas.

"We use a lot of our manufacturers' already updated information," says Powell. "For example, one supplier came up with a neat stone finish demonstration, so we used the video of someone putting the application down and uploaded it to our Facebook page."

JanPak then uses Twitter to send out a tweet about the video to its customers and direct those who are interested to Facebook to watch the video.

Tweet This

Twitter (www.twitter.com) is a micro-blogging service that enables its users to send and read messages known as "tweets." Tweets can be up to 140 characters, so users need to be succinct. While not as popular as Facebook among distributors, Twitter is being used successfully by some, like Powell, to direct traffic to their blog, Web site or other social networking pages.

Kaycee Inwood, customer service representative for Beach Chemical & Paper Co., Virginia Beach, Va., uses Twitter to announce promotions, specials and new products. The company also uses the tool to provide followers with information about the company's services.

"If we post product information, we usually include a link to our online catalog," she says. "We also link back and forth between our Twitter and Facebook pages to get more of our customers to follow us on both sites."

According to Inwood, using Twitter has resulted in new customers.

"It's opened the door for us," she says. "We can find out what our customers are interested in, and we can also see who they are linked to."

She tries to update the company's Twitter account once a day, or at the very least three days a week.

In addition to being used as a marketing tool, Twitter can help distributors stay up-to-date on industry happenings.

"Using Twitter, you can do a search on any given topic," says Terry Brock, marketing consultant with Achievement Systems Inc., Orlando, Fla. "That way, you can stay on top of what everyone else is doing in addition to finding out what the market is saying about your business."

This gives distributors the opportunity to defend themselves should they find derogatory tweets or complaints about their businesses.

Plugged In On LinkedIn

Unlike many other popular networking sites, LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com) is mainly used for professional networking. Users join the site to find jobs or business opportunities, post job openings, look for potential employees and establish new business relationships by joining alumni, industry or professional groups.

Dan Josephs, general manager, Spruce Industries, Rahway, N.J., has been using LinkedIn for about four years. In the past six months, he has seen a huge increase in jan/san industry users.

"LinkedIn has allowed me to talk to and have discussions with manufacturers and distributors all across the country," he says. "I'm able to interact with people I've never met before, and we can bounce ideas off each other."

Yeadon uses LinkedIn to stay connected with Jon-Don's customers. Yeadon is also using the social networking site to find new employees instead of online classified ads.

"We're always looking for quality people, and we find a lot of them on LinkedIn," he says.

For some distributors, LinkedIn Groups is one of the site's most rewarding features. Powell and many of JanPak's customers join groups such as the U.S. Green Building Council to find information on sustainable products. (Many of these organizations also maintain a presence on Facebook.) The company's sales associates also use these LinkedIn Groups to sign up for Webinars and follow market trends.

To get the most out of LinkedIn Groups, distributors should actively engage in discussions and try to be as helpful as possible.

"You have to be aggressive," says Jonathan Shotwell, Web manager for Charlottesville Sanitary Supply. Put yourself out there, and ask other people's questions. For example, if you have a question from a customer and you don't know the answer, put it on a group discussion board and get answers from around the country. In doing so, you start to establish yourself as a leader in the industry and people will come to you."

While the jan/san industry by and large has not taken to social networking, those that have are confident that it's only a matter of time before their business partners, colleagues and customers join the trend, too.

"It's the wave of the future, and it's going to get stronger and stronger," says Vermillion. "That's the way the next generation of folks communicate, and if you're not communicating in their circle, they'll never know about you. We need to be a part of [social networking] if we're going to survive and continue to grow."

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.

Getting Started

Regardless of which social networking sites distributors choose to promote their businesses, the keys to creating and managing dynamic posts are the same:

CREATE A STRONG PROFILE. "Don't just say 'I'm wonderful,'" warns Terry Brock, marketing consultant with Achievement Systems Inc. "Get a benefit-laden profile. Tell people how you can help them keep things clean and healthy to the environment at affordable prices."

Brock also suggests offering free reports in your profile description to help customers save money or keep cleaning services environmentally friendly.

START A BLOG. No discussion of social networking would be complete without mentioning the blog.

"It's an integral part of all social media," says Brock.

He recommends using a free, open-source blog publishing application.

UPDATE OFTEN. Opening an account or starting a blog is not enough. Distributors need to update their social networking sites and blogs often to generate and maintain interest. This can be as easy as sharing a link to a report or article of interest to the industry.

BE PATIENT. Building a fan base won't happen overnight.

"It's going to take a while to get established," says Jonathan Shotwell, Web manager for Charlottesville Sanitary Supply. "It took longer for us to get 100 'friends' [on Facebook] than it did to get to more than 1,000."