Small business owners increasingly are leveraging online and social media channels to grow their customer base. A recent survey of over 600 small businesses conducted by Manta, an online community for small business, indicated that 90 percent say they dedicate time to networking online. Furthermore, 74 percent find networking just as, if not more, valuable than networking in person.

Source: Manta

Nearly half of the participants in the Manta survey said that gaining and targeting prospective customers is the most valuable benefit of networking online. Specifically, 78 percent said they gained at least a quarter of their new customers through online or social media channels.

Among the social media channels, Facebook was cited as the most valuable — 42 percent of respondents have a presence. Among these, 19 percent indicated that their Facebook Page drove the most business for their company, ahead of LinkedIn (12 percent), Google+ (10 percent) and Twitter (5 percent). By comparison 24 percent of small business owners surveyed say that their company website drives the most new business for them.

Tips for using social media effectively for your business:

You may already have a successful social media strategy but if you are still trying to figure out how to leverage social media to attract and retain customers, consider these five tips:

Pick one platform: Don’t try to do too much at once. Pick one social media platform (Facebook for example if your target is largely mainstream consumers or LinkedIn if you are a B2B provider) and focus on it.  Set a plan and realistic goals for what you want to accomplish. Brand building on Facebook through contests, giveaways, getting feedback on current and possible future products is not the same thing as networking on LinkedIn for referrals.

See what works: Before you actively start posting comments and content, find out what others in your market are doing to find out what works and what doesn’t. See what types of content solicit the most responses and how actively people participate. For example, do they just ‘like’ a post on Facebook or do they comment and ask questions.

Be consistent: Once you begin to engage, keep a schedule. Don’t spend so much time in the beginning that you run out of steam and abandon your social media effort. Establish a set amount of time that you will devote to social media each week – a half hour a day or a three posts a week – and stick to that.

Avoid self-promotion: Social media is a not a platform simply for self-promotion. Engagement is the key to successful social media. Don’t only talk about your company – share information that you think will be useful and relevant to your followers. Post comments about what’s happening in the marketplace, top trends and helpful information.

Ask questions and respond: Think of your involvement as a running conversation with your followers.

Are you among the 90 percent networking online? What channels are proving to be most helpful to grow your business?