Social networking sites can be a good tool for entrepreneurs looking to spread the word on their businesses, but user beware: You could end up doing more harm than good.

Small business owners have stormed the online social media world to help promote sales and solidify branding. With free and unlimited access, social networking has become a key player in connecting with customers, monitoring competition and expanding professional networks.

The vastness of the online networking world can be daunting, here are eight tips to create a strong footprint in the social networking landscape.

Don’t Bite Off More than You can Chew

Internet marketing expert Giovanni Gallucci tells his clients to pick one to two networking sites at the start of their journey and really focus on learning how to work them. 

“It’s a learning experience,” he says. “Spend six months learning the Web sites and using them as a marketing tool for your business. “Watch and listen. After that, reevaluate whether it’s beneficial to you.”

Gallucci says social networking isn’t a do or die situation: If you don’t want to do it, don’t--you are just setting yourself up for failure.

Do Plan Ahead

Before taking the leap into the social media world, make sure to prioritize your top business goals and identify your target audience, recommends Gail Martin, marketing expert and author of “30 Days to Social Media Success.”

“This will help you cut through the social media clutter and will enable you to feel confident in choosing the right sites and the correct message,” says Martin.

Don’t Become an Outsider

Make sure to read the rules and understand the culture of a social networking site before getting involved. Sites differ in what kinds of behaviors are acceptable, and it’s important to understand your audience before investing too much time.

“Take the time to get to know the other community members and listen to what’s being talked about and what the general tone of conversation is like before contributing,” says Martin.

Do Get the Company Involved 

It’s important everyone in your company is a part of the social networking learning process, which can maximize your usage, according to Gallucci.

“Companies that can let employees do the work can get positive results,” he says. Your employees hear from your customers and can build relationships through the social networking sites.

Don’t Use Social Media as a Billboard 

Maintaining your company’s identity and values online is important, says social media expert Joel Comm. Use the sites to help potential customers get to know the company by building relationships.

“Businesses are finding these sites to be a way to connect with customers and deal directly with issues and concerns they might have,” says Comm.

For instance, companies are using Twitter accounts for customer service. They can respond to customers’ questions and concerns immediately, while creating a genuine relationship with their customers.

Do Engage in Conversation

Comm says social networking sites are like the “water cooler of our time.” People turn to these sites to learn about your company’s products and what others are saying about you.  

Meanwhile, you can bring value and expertise to the conversation, proving your company is a good place to do business.

Martin recommends viewing other members of the social media community as people, not prospects.

“The real power of social media comes when it’s used not as a broadcast tool, but as a medium for conversations, two-way dialogue and feedback,” says Martin. “Engage your friends and followers on topics related to your business. Find out what’s on their minds and what’s keeping them awake at night, then look for ways to refer them to resources.”

Don’t be Stupid

Just as easy as they can build up your business, networking sites can bring down your business.

“Don’t forget that everything on the Web is public,” says Martin. “There are no secrets on the Web, so never say anything that you wouldn’t like to see quoted on the front page of the newspaper (or the top of the search results on Google). Slander and libel laws still apply, and the FTC still governs your claims.”

Do Use Social Media as a Supplement

“Social media is a great tool, but it’s not the be all end all,” according to Gallucci.

It’s important to integrate things like social media with the rest of your marketing strategy.

“Social media shouldn’t be your only marketing tool, nor is it a stand-alone solution,” according to Martin.  “For best results, your social media should reinforce the messages and offers you provide through your Web site, traditional PR, direct mail and other marketing tools.”