The latest buzzwords to hit the scene are social media, social marketing, viral marketing, social networking, etc. Many contractors have asked me if this is just a fad, and if not, how can it help their business. They think it's a big time waster. The answer to these questions is more complex than, "yeah it really works," or "no, it's just a passing thing and will go the way of eight track players and VCRs."

The tools and venues of electronic communications are evolving. What you see today may be completely different in just two years. This is a new chapter in society, and you can choose to be an active participant, or you can stick your head in the sand and hope everything gets back to "normal."

Here's the bottom line: Today's "normal" and tomorrow's normal will never look like what was normal just a decade ago. Our children are growing up with "smart" phones and the Internet at their fingertips. They're being born into a cyber community, and most importantly, they like it and feel very at home with it. In other words, to them it’s "normal."

So what does this mean for those of us in business who are over the age of 25? It's time to get hip. Our very survival and success over the next few years could depend on it. Does this mean we need to just jump on the cyber bandwagon and abandon every other way we've been marketing and communicating to customers? Of course not.

Traditional media and communications aren't dead, but are evolving and hybridizing, using social media as part of an overall approach. I think, over time, it too will take on a different guise.

Here's my perspective on some of the tools I've learned about and adopted over the past couple of years:

Facebook, LinkedIn and other "personal" pages.
These are free services you can set yourself or your company up on to provide information to people you connect with.

LinkedIn tends to be a business-to-business vehicle, and is a great tool for connecting with people in your industry: from manufacturers to distributors to fellow contractors. It's also great for developing a network with other businesses that are potential customers, especially if you do commercial work.

Facebook is more of a social vehicle, but if used properly, can be a powerful communication tool with residential customers. Here's a tip: Don't make your personal Facebook page available to business acquaintances, associates or customers. Instead, create a separate page based on your company or organization. This "fan" page can act as a mini website for your customers/potential customers, and associates where you can keep them informed about your company in a less formal way than an official website. You'll discover many new uses and ways you can connect this page to more traditional marketing vehicles.

Blogs, Twitter, Forums.
Another growing area in social media are vehicles that allow you to communicate with people who have chosen to follow you or your company in cyberspace.

Blogs are pages where one or more people in your organization post useful information, insights, and updates for your followers to see. They can be created at no cost on sites available through Google. Blogger.com, for example is a great place to start a blog.

Twitter is still a somewhat misunderstood forum where you send, or "tweet," short messages to your followers. People who use Twitter realize the best way to get the most out of their tweets is to add a link to provide more depth or something related to the message — like a blog page, or even a video blog.

Forums are web pages that usually reside within your website, or can be hosted by third parties for a very reasonable fee. Generally they're used for groups that share an interest, or for a business that serves other businesses. For example, Contracting Business.com magazine has HVAC-Talk.com. There are several HVAC related forums out there. You might find it valuable to also get involved in some of your customers' forums.

One of the most valuable aspects of all of these vehicles is that they are forming communities within your local community, and beyond. If your firm is considered part of a community or multiple communities, you become the go-to company when someone needs help with their HVAC system. This aspect alone can be extremely valuable.

All of this techno-speak may seem daunting at first, but I assure you that the process is very reliable and fairly foolproof. So don't think about it too long, take the plunge. Get online, start a following and follow other leaders. To follow my tweets, sign up for Twitter and look for Team-NCI. You can also find me on Linked-In, and our Facebook page name is National Comfort Institute.

Dominick Guarino is Chairman & CEO of National Comfort Institute (NCI), (www.nationalcomfortinstitute.com), an international training, certification and membership organization with more than 500 members. NCI coined the term, Performance-Based Contracting™ to describe what their members do. The organization's primary mission is to help contractors grow and become more profitable. Email him at domg@ncihvac.com.