A lot of conversations about social media mention the explosive growth of networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. They also include at least one individual who will tell you, unequivocally, that if you’re not on one of the "big three," you’ll soon be irrelevant.

This isn’t one of those conversations.

True, social media can help you raise awareness for your personal brand and may help you more easily scale the number of clients and prospects you’re able to stay in front of. But before you go jumping on one of the social networks, shouldn’t we be talking about how social media fits into your personal marketing plan and, if it does, how you’ll use it to be, you know, "social"?

Knowing where your clients are

Though there are several similarities between social networks and traditional networking opportunities, the one that shouldn’t be lost in conversation is this: A social network’s value to you depends on the people participating.

You’re not likely to join the local chapter of an industry organization without first knowing whether your clients and prospective clients invest their time there, nor are you likely to join if there isn’t an opportunity for you to interact with them. You should take the same approach to social media.

So, make a few phone calls to your closest clients and friends working in-house. Ask them what platform they’re using, how often they’re on it and why they find it valuable. Ask them if their business contacts and friends feel the same way. Keep track of the answers.

Additionally, social networks are pretty open places. Even without a profile, you can search the sites for information on who uses them. Take advantage of that opportunity, and audit sites for individuals who you have previously met (but don’t have a strong enough relationship to call), as well as key contacts at companies and corporations that you’ve identified as targets for business development.

Identifying your strengths

When you’ve pulled together your research, you should have a pretty clear picture of how your contacts and targets are using social media. And, if you honestly assess your strengths as a communicator, you have valuable information to help leverage the opportunities being presented to you.

For instance, if your contacts use Twitter as a personalized news service and you often find interesting articles related to your clients’ areas of business, you can easily become a "reporter" for them on a larger scale.

Those articles you previously sent via email to colleagues and contacts? Share it on Twitter, as well. Have a group of industry journalists whose bylines you always seek out? Find them on Twitter, build a list and email your contacts to let them know you pulled together valuable information for them in an easy-to-find place.

Or maybe you’re a strong writer with contacts who are using LinkedIn for thought leadership pieces. If so, leverage LinkedIn’s status update feature to easily post your client alerts, newsletter articles and blog posts for all your "connections" to see on their home page.

A blogger with clients and contacts who routinely turn to Google searches instead of social networks for that type of information? Use Google Plus to increase your posts’ search rankings.

Staying ‘social’

Whatever plan you put in place, be committed to follow through on it.

Much like that local chapter of an industry organization, simply being a member won’t lead to a bump in visibility. In fact, half-hearted adoption or sitting on the sidelines of a social network is far more dangerous than not being there at all. Consider the impression a new contact leaves with if you let his or her LinkedIn request go unanswered; it has the same effect as failing to return a phone call or ignoring an email.

So, if you’re going to participate, deliver what your contacts are looking for (heck, even share a GIF file of a dancing cat every once in a while). You’ll see better results when you stick to your plan.

But that’s not the end of the road.

The Internet is no longer a "place" that is separate from our daily lives. Google is a synonym for "search," Facebook’s group features and brand pages are augmenting and, in some cases replacing, email blasts, and Twitter has served, on several occasions, as a way to organize "in-person" political demonstrations and other social campaigns.

Your involvement on social media, then, should not be thought of as separate and apart from your normal business development activities.

One way to integrate your online work into your personal interactions is by listing your social media presence on your business card. Use a QR code to drive people there, and encourage them to do so. Instantly connecting helps you capitalize on that in-person meeting and allows the new contact to learn more about who you are and what you can offer them. At that same time, you’ll learn more about that individual, their preferences and their needs.

With that information, you’ll be better positioned to make more meaningful connections with them moving forward. •

Leo J. Strupczewski is a communications manager in Drinker Biddle & Reath’s Philadelphia office. Contact him at leo.strupczewski@dbr.com or 215-988-2787.