I’ve heard it a million times from HVAC contractors. Maybe you’ve even said it yourself. I have a business to run. I don’t have extra time to spend on blogs and tweets and Facebook.

Sometimes I get the feeling that many contractors believe social media is a passing fad at best – or a waste of time at worst.

In reality, social media can -- and does -- generate the HVAC sales leads that contractors need in order to grow. More people join the social media universe every day. And it’s your job to meet them there. Social media should be a vital component of your marketing strategy. It takes a different mentality to be successful in social media than any other marketing you’ve done in the past.

We know that consumers look online first for information about potential purchases – even before they know they’re in the market for products or services. That also goes for new parents wondering how they’ll eventually pay for college – long before they invest in a 529 Plan. Same goes for migraine sufferers seeking relief – months before they talk to the doctor about a new medication.

And the same goes for homeowners wondering why their furnaces are making funny noises – long before they trade them in for newer, more energy-efficient systems.

So catch HVAC sales leads right then and there – online, via social media sites, as your prospects begin to educate themselves on their purchases-to-be. Whether you make your connection through your HVAC blog, your business page on Facebook or your posts on Twitter, those connections can translate into sales leads.

That new heat pump - it was purchased from and installed by the HVAC contractor whose blog posts – titled, perhaps, “Your Aging Furnace: Repair or Replace?” and, “5 Reasons Heat Pumps Save Money” – helped that noisy-furnace owner determine that it was time for an upgrade. Those blog posts offered something useful and relevant to that customer: a local, certified contractor’s expertise, minus any hard sell.

Each post also included a “call to action” – an invitation to contact a technician or fill out an online form for a quote, for example – making it easy for the customer to take the relationship further. Even better, it possibly included a sign up to receive the contractor’s “Energy Savings Monthly eNewsletter” so that the homeowner could continue to learn directly from the contractor.

That’s the magic of great content…when homeowners actually request to receive your marketing on a consistent basis.

Creating an HVAC blog is one great way to use social media to enhance your company’s position as your community’s foremost provider of equipment and service – and to turn online leads into sales. But don't stop there. Here are some tips for using social media to generate HVAC sales leads:

Widen your net by joining groups – and participating in them. To reach new leads, you need to break into new networks of people. Social networking sites do a terrific job of bringing together people with shared qualities and interests.

What qualities or interests might be shared by your potential leads? Start with a group search on LinkedIn, perhaps joining an online network of folks who work in the building industry or who belong to local homeowners’ associations. Pushing energy-efficient products? Join a green energy group on Facebook. When you write a relevant blog post about solar water heaters, put a link on the green group’s wall.

Widen your net by tapping your colleagues’ groups. Encourage your staff to post your company’s social media content from their own accounts, which will reach whole new networks of people in your community. Some people spend more time on Twitter than on LinkedIn. Others use Google+ rather than Facebook.

Invest in your online relationships. Extend the same courtesy and professionalism to potential online leads that you’d offer in person. If a reader leaves a comment or question on your blog, respond promptly. When someone starts to follow you on Twitter, follow them back. Found something relevant to post on Facebook? Credit the source by tagging the contributor in your post. With each online interaction, you build your standing with potential HVAC sales leads (not to mention expanding your reach online, leading you to more potential leads).

Think real estate. Sometimes an easy way to think about your social media exposure is to liken it to real estate. The more active you can be on social media, the more places you can be found on the web. This creates an online asset for you, just like if you were buying a property with a good possibility to grow in value over time.

As social media changes and grows, customers will continue to use it, as well as search engines, to gather information, make decisions and make connections. You should be using social media too, to tap a rich source of HVAC sales leads and relationships.

Joe Pulizzi is CEO for SocialTract, the leading blogging/social media service for HVACR Contractors. Joe’s new book, Managing Content Marketing, is now available on Amazon and Kindle. Joe can be reached on Twitter @juntajoe or by email joe@socialtract.com.