Social media is sweeping the business community. Ford Motors, for example, is spending 25% of its marketing budget on digital/social media. Yet most contractors are slow to adopt it. Stunningly, there's apparently no shortage of industry skeptics willing to speak out and shout down digital technologies, proclaiming everything this side of email to be a fad.

Social media is no fad. Facebook added 100 million users in nine months. If it were a country, Facebook would be the world's 4th largest. YouTube hosts over 100 million videos, gets one billion views per day, and is the world's second largest search engine. Per Hitwise, an online competitive intelligence service, social media tops pornography as the Internet's top activity.

Advertisers have noticed. The New York Times reported that newspaper advertising was down 18.7% in 2009. Consumer magazine advertising dropped 14.8%, radio 11.7%, and television 10.1%. By contrast, mobile advertising is up 18.1% and Internet advertising jumped 9.2%. Budgets are shifting to chase results.

Yet, many industry pros willing to acknowledge that social media is more than a passing fad still claim it just won't work for HVAC.

Nonsense.

For example, Yorktown, VA contractor, Chuck Worley used Facebook to reconnect with old friends and leverage his high school alumni base. This led directly to a $13,000 residential job and $30,000 of commercial work.

Some claim they just don't “get it.” Of course they don't. They haven't spent time with it. Even those who do spend the time find it difficult to get their arms around social media. Moreover, it's constantly changing and evolving.

Others say it takes too much time. Social media does take time. So does driving to the customer, but that doesn't mean it's a waste.

I believe contractors fail to see the value in social media for the same reason few see the value in local networking. Based on informal surveys during seminars, I estimate less than 2% of the contracting community belongs to a service club, like Rotary, Lion's, Optimist, Kiwanis, etc.

My Rotary Club includes dozens of well-connected business and community leaders who not only need air conditioning service, but are in a position to recommend contractors to others. Unfortunately, we lack an air conditioning contractor in the club to recommend.

It's not like the area lacks contractors. Dallas is crawling with air conditioning companies and most need to eat lunch. So why not eat with a group of local influencers once a week and join in the occasional community service project (further enhancing the contractor's image in the community)? Frankly, I think contractors should join as many clubs as their schedules allow, maximizing networking opportunities.

Networking is not horribly expensive, though it does require an investment in time. It builds over time, and expands your direct and indirect connections within your community. It pays off many times over, but is hard to measure, and the timing is unpredictable.

Social media, done right, is similar to local networking. It's building and leveraging relationships to drive referrals. It's engaging customers and prospects in conversations.

In the past, marketing was based on shouting a controlled message at the masses. It wasn't a conversation. It was a lecture. Today, consumers are increasingly using DVRs to fast forward past commercials, satellite radio to skip ads altogether, and the Internet in lieu of the newspaper. The old ways are losing effectiveness.

Unlike mass marketing, social media is two-way. It's engagement. It's a conversation. It requires a changed approach. You can't control it. You can only influence it. You can't dictate. You must entice. You'll get shunned if you simply shout and shill through social media, which explains much contractor consternation.

The good news is social media can create a resilient base of business resembling a strong service agreement program. Over time, it's more effective than traditional advertising because it carries the strength of word-of-mouth. According to the “Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey,” 90% of consumers trust peer recommendations and 70% trust opinions posted online about products and services from unknown consumers.

Like networking, social media works, but the timing of the payoff is unpredictable, stopping many contractors from making the investment. It requires a leap of faith. Are you ready to take the social media leap of faith?

Matt Michel is the CEO of the Service Roundtable and an active practitioner of social media. Email him at Matt.Michel@ServiceRoundtable.com for a FREE subscription to his ezine, read his blog at ComancheMarketing.com, connect with him on Linked In and Plaxo, become his Facebook friend, become a Facebook Fan of the Service Roundtable, and follow him on Twitter at @ComancheMktg. Or, you can call him toll free at 877/262.3341 or his mobile at 214/995.8889.