But an online mar­ket­ing expert explains how you can make Face­book, Twit­ter, and Groupon, among oth­ers, work for your small busi­ness.

If you are like most small busi­ness­es, you and your team are stretched thin. If you even have a team. All day long you are ser­vic­ing cus­tomers, deliv­er­ing prod­ucts, man­ag­ing finances and doing what­ev­er it takes to keep your busi­ness up and run­ning. The last thing you need is to waste time. But for many small busi­ness­es, that’s exact­ly what they are doing when it comes to mar­ket­ing with social media.

The typ­i­cal small busi­ness Face­book page is a ghost town. It might have some pic­tures of the busi­ness, a few posts about an event six months ago, and a hand­ful of fol­low­ers who joined when the page launched. On Twit­ter, there might be a cou­ple posts a month and none of them are relat­ed to any cus­tomer ques­tion. The same is true for Foursquare. Groupon is like going to the casi­no: there’s a good chance you’ll come home with empty pock­ets.

It’s hard to resist the promise of mar­ket­ing in social media. It’s per­son­al, effi­cient, and it is grow­ing at a remark­able rate. Your cus­tomers spend most of their media time on these sites and they are dis­cussing prod­uct expe­ri­ences and research­ing pur­chase deci­sions. But that doesn’t mean that every busi­ness should drop every­thing and start a Face­book page or a Twit­ter account. This isn’t like buy­ing an ad in the news­pa­per or the Yel­low Pages; You don’t just set it up and walk away.

To make the most of your social media mar­ket­ing, you need to have a plan. Social media is about hav­ing an ongo­ing con­ver­sa­tion with your cus­tomers, not dron­ing on about your busi­ness while they ignore you. You have to put in the time to cul­ti­vate your exist­ing cus­tomers and attract new ones. Yes, this will take a lit­tle more time and thought, but that’s why it works. If you “set it and for­get it,” you are wast­ing your time. Guar­an­teed.

Here are six steps to make sure you don’t waste time in social media:

1. Pick the right chan­nels.

You know that loca­tion is every­thing in busi­ness, so make sure you are in the right place. What social media sites do your cus­tomers use? How do they use them? Where do they turn to research your prod­uct? You need to be where they are and where they are talk­ing to each other. For exam­ple, if you run a restau­rant, you should pay atten­tion to Yelp. If you have a jogging-goods store, you may want to engage with folks on Run­K­eep­er. If you offer laser hair removal you should know all about Groupon (if you don’t already).

2. Write posts for your cus­tomers, not you.

You can’t have a mean­ing­ful dia­logue with cus­tomers if you don’t know what they want to talk about. Think about the ques­tions you hear every day from cus­tomers. Look at what peo­ple are talk­ing about on dis­cus­sion boards, in blog com­ments, on com­peti­tor sites, and on review sites. Engage with active cus­tomers indi­vid­u­al­ly by answer­ing their ques­tions and ask­ing for feed­back. Their respons­es will give you ideas for new blog posts and places to engage folks, and may even lead to new pro­mo­tions or offer­ings. Remem­ber, social media mar­ket­ing is about your cus­tomers; it’s not about you.

3. Give to Get: What offers can you make to drive loy­al­ty?

Every­one loves a deal, and they love to share it when they find one. Access to offers is one of the biggest rea­sons peo­ple fol­low brands in social media. Give them some­thing exclu­sive. Make them feel spe­cial and encour­age them to share it with their friends on Face­book and Twit­ter. It’s a great way to get peo­ple buzzing about you. It will build your fol­low­ing fast, and it’s a heck of a lot less expen­sive than what you pay sites like Liv­ing Social or Groupon to dis­trib­ute your offer.

4. Mix it up. Dull con­tent is like Spam.

You’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeat­ing. Social media is a con­ver­sa­tion. Con­ver­sa­tions can be insane­ly bor­ing if you say the same thing over and over again. Add vari­ety to your posts. Ask for feed­back and ques­tions. Run a con­test or a sweep­stakes. Try humor, and can­dor. Invite peo­ple to sub­mit pho­tos of their fam­i­ly and friends using your prod­ucts. Share the sto­ries of your best cus­tomers. This is your com­mu­ni­ty online, make it fun.

5. Bud­get enough time to engage, or else hire some­one.

You are mak­ing a com­mit­ment to your cus­tomers and you have to fol­low through. Make it a daily rou­tine. Sched­ule reminders in your Google cal­en­dar. Cover your desk with yel­low stick­ies. Do what­ev­er it takes. This is an impor­tant task that is part of your job. If you don’t have the time for it, find some­one who does. Make sure that per­son under­stands your busi­ness com­plete­ly, has the author­i­ty to solve cus­tomer prob­lems, and can com­mu­ni­cate with the pub­lic in a pro­fes­sion­al way.

6. Use the right tools.

Like any project, the right tools can make the job a lot eas­i­er. The Inter­net has many free tools you can use to mon­i­tor dis­cus­sion and mea­sure the impact of your efforts. Some of my favorites are Tweet­deck to man­age Twit­ter, Topsy for trend­ing dis­cus­sion vol­ume over time, and Social­men­tion for eval­u­at­ing the sen­ti­ment of con­ver­sa­tions sur­round­ing your indus­try. To make your update post­ing eas­i­er, check out Pos­ter­ous for dis­trib­ut­ing updates to all your net­works and com­mu­ni­ties, and Cinch.fm for record­ing voice mes­sages on the phone that can be shared with your social net­work fol­low­ers. You can see a more com­plete list of the pop­u­lar tools here.