By now, social media is a term with which virtually everyone is familiar, and it is frequently used to describe sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. What most people do not realize is that they have been using the term incorrectly; social media is often interchanged with its close counterpart, social networking. This inaccurate usage of the words fails to acknowledge the major differences between the two, and understanding these differences is crucial to maintaining a successful marketing strategy.

Social media is best defined as a channel in which information can be shared with a wide audience. Content is created and then social media is utilized as the distributor. This delivery-style format is meant to spread messages, with a focus on one-way communication from the content creator to the viewer. Therefore, social media is not really a visited location, but an information system.

Social networking, on the other hand, is the act or process of engagement between people with common interests. Accordingly, it places more of an emphasis on two-way communication. Social networking sites exist for groups of like-minded members to converse and associate with one another, sharing their experiences and backgrounds with specific subject matter. This is how social networking grows relationships and builds a sense of community.

A business should strive to be the best connected, not the most connected. The opportunity for direct communication offered by social networking makes it an invaluable resource for businesses. Breaking into social media is difficult for a brand that is not already well-known, and it can take a long time for any sort of following to develop, ruling out the potential for immediate individual conversations. Social networking, however, more easily leads to meaningful and personal conversations, especially since users choose the people with which they connect. Forming relationships with others enlarges a user’s network as the user becomes introduced to more and more people.

Despite the distinction between these two terms, there is still an overlap in the way they relate to one another. The most effective marketing strategies combine both social media and social networking. A smart business will not only post content to social media websites, but will also ensure that the content is being used as a tool to engage its audience, actively and simultaneously networking. Social media serves as the vehicle that allows for social networking.

While tech-savvy businesses tend to put a lot of effort into social media, social networking is sometimes an area that is lacking. Numerous networking sites are available that online marketers or small businesses owners alike may take advantage of, but LinkedIn is the most popular and established one. Learning to use LinkedIn can provide a business with many benefits.

Because one of LinkedIn’s purposes is connecting companies that share interests, B2B networking can be accomplished without difficulty. Vendors, suppliers, manufacturers, and other third party providers can all easily be found and contacted through the LinkedIn platform. What used to take days or even weeks of phone calls to compare vendors can now be done in several hours, sending and replying to a few “InMails.”

Additionally, evaluating a vendor’s online presence will help a user to form a better image of the company than merely speaking to a representative over the phone. LinkedIn users can also check to see if other businesses have had positive experiences working with vendors. This recommendation feature even extends to products and services that are added on company profiles. Companies can request recommendations from customers, boosting credibility to gain new clients. Companies must approve requested recommendations before they are posted on their profiles, but they cannot be modified by the company, which makes the recommendations strong and reliable.

LinkedIn can even be utilized as a social media channel to aid in B2C networking. Actively managing a company profile on the site can help to raise brand awareness and build brand image. Posting frequently and updating with relevant, topical, or entertaining content will increase the likeability factor of a brand and gradually build the trust of potential consumers.

Directly networking with these possible customers, as well as promoting products and services outside of a traditional advertising campaign, will help to generate new leads. Optimizing a company profile in combination with focusing brand image will result in organic leads when people find those pages on LinkedIn and like what they see. Companies retain all the benefits of word-of-mouth advertising, while being able to control what is posted on their profiles.

Since LinkedIn is a site intended to facilitate interaction, reaching an existing customer base through surveys, messaging, and comments is simple. Using these tools properly can help heighten customer satisfaction levels and show a company’s concern for its customers. Resolving customers’ issues and addressing complaints via the public and private messaging options on the LinkedIn social network demonstrates that a company is willing to listen to its customers.

Aside from communicating with a customer base, LinkedIn users can reach out to other industry members to participate in what is called “knowledge sharing.” Users can pose business questions to their connections through InMails, while the many groups on LinkedIn serve as forums for the discussion of industry topics. These forums are an excellent resource for learning of marketplace trends from groups of professionals. The introduction of LinkedIn Answers to the site allows users to ask business questions to their own networks as well as the greater LinkedIn community.

LinkedIn is also used by many business professionals who are seeking employment opportunities. Consistently relevant, active LinkedIn pages are likely to draw inquiries and applications from the multitude of talents who are searching the network for jobs. Quality of a profile directly corresponds to how much top tier talent comes its way. Attaching a current list of open positions on a company profile will make the page more easily found by someone who might be looking to join that kind of business.

Employers who are recruiting can search for candidates that fit their requirements themselves, although a monthly subscription fee is necessary for certain types of searches. LinkedIn does allow for potential recruits to be approached directly. In addition, companies can post job ads on the site, for a monthly fee dependent on location.

No matter a company’s business objectives, the versatility of social networking, especially on sites such as LinkedIn, will help companies to establish a solid network of useful contacts, whether it consists of experts, service providers, customers, potential clients, or somewhere in between. Valuable business relationships can be cultivated while driving traffic to company profiles and websites. With social networkers numbering in the hundreds of millions, there could not be a better time to begin taking advantage of what networking has to offer.