With the soaring popularity of social networking, it’s no surprise that businesses have jumped on the bandwagon. But while it may be tempting to create a profile and walk away, businesses have to be willing to learn to use networking sites the right way.

Ashwin Malshe, a Binghamton University marketing professor, said that social media marketing is a very important tool for businesses but many are doing it incorrectly.

‘I actually think that most [businesses] are not using it effectively,’ Malshe said. ‘It should be a two-way conversation, otherwise it’s just spam.’

According to Malse, Wegmans (@wegmans) is one of the most successful businesses using social networking. The company has more than 10,000 followers and uses its profile to not only inform people of company news but as a way to improve customer service ‘ people who tweet comments at the company receive a prompt response.

Escape State Street and M.Y. Boutique, both located in Downtown Binghamton, are among a few local businesses who have turned to social networking to increase their clientele.

M.Y. Boutique currently has 300 Facebook fans and 137 followers on Twitter (@myboutique) and Anna Bear Dallis, the store owner, uses both to keep followers updated on what’s going on in the store.

‘If we get new stuff in, I’ll take a picture of each individual item,’ Dallis explained.

According to Dallis, this helps boost sales as well as encourages clients to keep checking back for new content. In addition, she offers other incentives for shoppers ‘ Twitter followers are given codes to get discounts off purchases and those who check into the store using Foursquare get a free gift.

An August study from Exact Target marketing group revealed that 30 percent of people who follow a brand on Twitter are looking for some sort of freebie or discount.

‘In the past we used radio advertising, we advertised in Pipe Dream, the Press & Sun[-Bulletin]. We always put a coupon in and we never received any of the coupon back,’ Dallis said. ‘Right now, we’re focusing more on Facebook and Twitter which is free. Just the cost of my time.’

Malshe begs to differ.

‘TV or radio is a big budget and involves a lot of people but once it’s done, it’s done,’ he explained. ‘With social media, you have to be involved all the time.’

According to Palmer Agnew, an adjunct lecturer for BU’s computer science department, new forms of technology should not be the be-all end-all for businesses.

‘[The success of social networking] depends on the business, the market served and the skill of the people driving the networking for the business,’ Agnew explained via e-mail.

Alex Pfaffenbach, co-owner of Escape State Street, isn’t too swayed by new technologies even though his company has successful numbers for a small business. Escape currently has a Facebook group of 590 members, a fan page with more than 400 members and a Twitter account (@escapestatest) with almost 90 members.

‘I don’t think either one [traditional or new marketing] is successful to be honest. The best method is old-fashioned word-of-mouth and handing out fliers,’ Pfaffenbach said. ‘The best kind of marketing is up-front.’

Pfaffenbach’s company has been using social networking sites since it opened last year but he and his team are still unsure of what the most successful ways to use social media marketing are.

‘We’re still finding the best way to use it to our advantage,’ Pfaffenbach said.

Malshe suggests that businesses should not only post information regarding their stores but also from sources that would be relevant to their clientele. For example, he suggests posting articles regarding what’s ‘in style’ for a clothing boutique or posting recipes or health articles for a restaurant.

‘It’s about trust,’ Malshe explained. ‘Sharing information from a neutral source shows that they care about me as the consumer.’

Like all new forms of communication, social media marketing has become a hot debate among professionals, some writing it off as a fad, while others are comparing it to the invention of television as a marketing platform.

‘Its too early to say how long this new fad will last. Businesses need to look where their customers are and how they make decisions to buy,’ Agnew said.

Malshe disagrees and uses the example of Pepsi, which decided not to run an ad during the Super Bowl in lieu of social networking campaigns ‘ a huge step for marketing companies.

‘A Super Bowl commercial will reach a lot of people but exposure is short,’ Malshe explained. ‘[Social networking] is going to be the future.’