Rather than banning staff from social networking sites, turn these hugely powerful tools to your business advantage

Online social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook have been the subject of a tremendous amount of media coverage, but are they any more than this year's Friends Reunited? They are undoubtedly great for wasting time. You can spend hours playing with them, messaging people, completing pointless online tests and being directed to chucklesome pictures. You can spend so long with them that Portsmouth council decided to ban its employees from using them at work.

That, I'd say, is the wrong attitude. The trick is to get your employees to use the communication infrastructure that these things provide to help your company make a greater profit. But how?

First, it's important to have a plan: it's easy to just leap into online social media. Signing up takes a couple of minutes, and suddenly you're broadcasting to the world. If you haven't worked out what you're going to say when you get going, don't start. Most new Twitter accounts open with “trying to work this thing out” as a first tweet. Don't let that be yours.

You've got to be focused. Once you're up and networking, you need to stick to posting about topics that are aligned with who you are. If you're a firm of architects, talk about architecture. If your competitive advantage is in supply chain efficiency, focus on that. It is easy to be drawn into discussions about all sorts of things, but if the topic or your comments are not aligned with your brand values, you are probably wasting your time and damaging your brand to boot.

The trick is to get your employees to use the communication infrastructure that these things provide to help your company make a greater profit. But how?

What can you achieve with these tools? For a start, they make it easier to talk to your existing customers, which is always good. Deepening relationships, displaying expertise and offering helping hands are all options for social media. One telecoms company operates its service desk on Twitter, using a single Twitter account for which control rotates around the world, offering a 24-hour “chat” style support system for its network.

Some software companies operate self-help communities, where some users ask questions and others answer. Customers in effect form part of the product development and service team, helping other customers with work-arounds and other problems.

Are you looking to recruit new staff? The biggest users of LinkedIn are recruitment consultants. They use the tool to find people perfectly suited to your jobs. You can do that yourself too, with a combination of searching the LinkedIn database and asking your existing contacts for recommendations or looking through their contact lists. Which people from your competitors are in your customers' contact lists? Would they come and work for you?

Do you need to communicate with a distributed team, or help them communicate with each other? HOK gets its staff to blog about HOK Life, which provides a strong esprit de corps all round the world, and almost as a byproduct serves as a neat shop window to potential recruits, who can then see what life working at HOK is like through the eyes of existing employees.

You need to stick to posting about topics that are aligned with who you are. Otherwise you are wasting your time and damaging your brand to boot

Are you trying to develop links with target customers that you'd like to work for? Again, by searching and checking through other people's contact lists you'll see who among your targeted prospects are active social media bods. You can ask a contact to introduce you to one of theirs through LinkedIn, or just send a direct message asking for a contact. Join groups so that you get to see who the other members of the group are, and then contact them. Start with the CIMCIG (Chartered Institute of Marketing Construction Industry Group) one on LinkedIn maybe?

Think whether you could set up your own group based on an issue closely related to your area of expertise, get your customers to join, and recruit prospects to join too? This would give you a forum within which to display your expertise on a key issue, and win some hearts and minds.

Essentially, anything you can do with a conversation, you can do with an online social media tool. Do you want feedback on your latest product launch? Do you want to know what it's like to work in one of the buildings you designed? Have you got a key problem you need solving right now, but don't know who to ask?

Could you do it with a phone call? If so, you can sort it out on Twitter.