When the bank robber, Willie Sutton, was asked why he robbed banks, he responded simply (and with an implied "Duh!"), "Because that's where the money is."

Why should you get involved with social media? Because that's where your customers are! If you became aware of a home and garden show that would be attended by 35% of adults in your community, would you want to exhibit? Even if the show attendance skewed towards younger adults, 35% is a huge number. You would want to be there, right?

At the beginning of 2009, an astounding 35% of U.S. Internet users had a social network profile (according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project). That number is even higher today.

Granted, older consumers are less likely to use social media and to still use the big yellow computer monitor stand to look up phone numbers. However, the tide is changing. Social media is the future.

People today turn to social media for recommendations about products and services, especially local services. Service contracting has always been highly referral based, making it a natural for social media. Instead of calling friends to ask the name of a great contractor, people post requests on Facebook.

Contractors are also using social media as a way to make special offers when they need sales.

So you're ready to start. You want to get going. But how? What's the strategy? First, understand that social media is rapidly evolving. What works today, may not work by the time you read this. It may not work in your market or for your company.

Therefore, the winning strategy for you will be the one that you evolve over time. There is no single, winning strategy. You're going to have to experiment.

Nevertheless, a successful approach to using social media for service contractors has been evolving. It's not the only approach, but one approach.

The goal is to use social media to build relationships and every now and then, direct people towards your blog or website. From your blog, generate calls, collect email addresses, or direct people to a place on your website where you allow people to schedule service now.

While lead generation is an outcome of social media, you cannot approach it that way. You can't be a shill. Contractors have tried. They end up becoming silent shills. They shill to themselves and no one else.

The key to social media is to engage, engage, engage. Do this well and everything else follows.

Stop Shouting, Start Listening, and Engage
Traditional marketing and advertising involved shouting at consumers using one-way communication vehicles like broadcast media, billboards, the Yellow Pages, and direct mail. To get more leads, contractors shouted louder and longer.

In the world of social media, the goal is to stop shouting and start listening. Pay attention to what people are saying and requesting, and then engage them in a dialogue. Have a two-way conversation.

Give Up Control
One of social media's biggest challenges for a service contractor is the lack of control. Contractors struggle with the free-wheeling nature of social media conversations. You can't control what people say. People might say something you don't like. They might say something about you or your company that's not true.

Guess what? They're going to say things anyway, whether you participate or not. With the Internet and social media, every consumer has a microphone and a platform. You cannot stop it. You cannot control it. At best, you can only influence it. And you can only influence it if you engage.

Be Authentic and Show Personality
Think of how you talk and engage people in a neighborhood block party. You're casual. You're open. You let your neighbors get to know you as a person. You talk about subjects of mutual interest. You're speaking with a human voice, not a corporate voice. This is the same voice you should use in social media.

Share your passions and hobbies. Talk about your kids. Be human. If you volunteer for the local animal shelter, every animal lover will have another point of connection with you, strengthening relationships. Business is built on relationships.

There are limits, of course. Just like you should keep controversial opinions to yourself when talking with your neighbors, you should keep them to yourself when engaging in social media.

Don't Shill Non-Stop
At the neighborhood block party, everyone shuns the insurance salesman who tries to sell a policy to everyone he meets. It's the same with social media. If you constantly shill, you'll soon be shilling to yourself.

There are plenty of opportunities to promote your business with social media, but promotion can't be all you do.

Mix Business and Personal
If you were born before 1970, you probably learned to separate your business and personal lives. Don't bring work home and keep your personal problems from affecting your business, right?

With social media, business and personal intersect. This makes many in older generations uncomfortable, though younger generations seem to take it in stride. Letting your personal life spill over into your business life helps your authenticity. Real people are not monolithic.

Stay Above Board
Bait and switch is dead with social media. When a British furniture store decided to piggyback on popular Twitter subjects to embed unrelated advertising messages, the backlash was instant and fierce. Act like a huckster and the social media community will call you out. Thus, some of the direct marketing approaches that are effective but shady may be too risky to try in the social media world. Good riddance.

Encourage Employee Involvement
Some business owners wonder whether or not theyshould encourage their employees to use social media. Absolutely!

You trust your employees to talk with customers face-to-face, unsupervised, in the field. You trust them to talk with customers over the phone. Why not trust them to interact with customers online?

Employee use of social media represents a tremendous opportunity to multiply your efforts and leverage the relationships of your team. Remember, the average Facebook user has 130 friends. If 10 employees are engaging their family members and friends through social media, by extension, that's 1,300 additional people wo are developing relationships with your brand. That’s 1,300 additional people who will see the occasional coupon used to spur business during slow periods. Why not take advantage of it?

The article is excerpted from the book, Social Media for the Service Contractor: How Contractors can Prosper with Google Places, E-mail marketing, Twitter, Facebook, linkedin, YouTube, and More © 2010 by Matt Michel.

Matt Michel is CEO of the Service Roundtable, HVAC's largest alliance. The Service Roundtable helps contractors improve their marketing and reduce costs. Learn more at ServiceRoundtable.com. You can reach Matt by email at Matt.Michel@service roundtable.com or toll free at 877/262-3341.