It’s not a fad. Your customers are online.

Your competitors can use social networking to reach dozens and even hundreds of potential customers for no money. There’s no $50,000 for Yellow Pages, no radio or TV airtime, no direct mail costs. It’s just an investment of time. Some upstart contractor can woo your customers without spending a dime.

I cringed when a contractor suggested at a recent convention that joining the Rotary is social networking. It may be networking, but that's not what we’re talking about when it comes to social networking.

Before you dismiss networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn as something the kids do to waste time, let me reiterate something that contractor Dan Friesen, owner of My Service Co., Alberta, Canada, told NexStar Network members at their recent Super Meeting. Your competitors can use social networking to reach dozens and even hundreds of potential customers for no money. There's no $50,000 for Yellow Pages, no radio or TV airtime, no direct mail costs. It's just an investment of time. Some upstart contractor can woo your customers without spending a dime.

In this issue, Minnesota plumbing contractor Eric Aune tells how he uses social media (see Ignore social media at your own risk).

"I operate my own Facebook business page, Aune-Plumbing-LLC. More than 200 people have chosen to "like" my page.”

"No matter the allowances in your budget for print and online marketing, social networking (i.e., Facebook, Twitter) can have an immediate impact in getting your name known around town," Aune writes.

Friesen explained to contractors at the NexStar event that there are plenty of social media sites, but the ones that count are Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. Google owns YouTube, so if you post videos to YouTube, your company name will come up higher when customers search for you on Google.

Alan Givens, CEO of Northern Virginia plumbing contractor Parrish Services Inc., fixes non-performing geothermal systems. He videos the jobs, posts them on YouTube, and advises prospective customers to watch the videos before they do business.

With wonderful timing, a new book from our friend Matt Michel has landed on our desks with the title "Social Media for the Service Contractor." The book has one of the better cover lines that we've seen lately: "Social Media is killing the Yellow Pages. Let's celebrate."

Michel writes, "If anyone needs social media, it's service contractors," but most of them don't know what it's all about or why they should bother.

Facebook has 500 million users and there are 100 million videos on YouTube, Michel notes. This is not a fad. It's where your customers are. I can't remember the last time I cracked open the Yellow Pages looking for a business. I'll Google them, look at their web page, get their phone number from switchboard.com or locate them on Mapquest. Your customers are looking online to see which contractors have the most expertise and who got the best reviews and recommendations

So what do you give customers on social media? Free stuff.

The blog PR Junkie at ragan.com reported that, "Seventy-seven percent of new-media users look for free products, coupons, or discounts from companies, according to the study. They expect to find this free stuff on social networks (48%), mobile devices (20%), message boards (20%), blogs (13%), and online games (12%)."

In his book, Michel shows how contractor Gabe Wade, Triple Service Plumbing, Heating & Cooling, posted a $20 coupon on his Facebook page just for his 667 friends.

One of the contractors that contractormag follows on Twitter, 7 Rico Plumbing Co., Los Angeles, tweeted, “Property Managers: We're here to take the worry out of your Plumbing needs. We offer a Special service Rate for... http://fb.me/B2KghO76."

Michel gives much of the same advice as Friesen. Stop talking and start listening. Be authentic and show your personality. Don't shill. As Friesen put it, it's like an online cocktail party and somebody trying to sell you something at a cocktail party is annoying. Don't worry if people say bad stuff about you. They'll say bad stuff about you offline anyway, but now you know about it and you can fix the problem.

Michel in his book and Friesen in his seminar point out that your personal and business lives will intertwine. Acknowledging that it might make older folks uncomfortable, Michel says," Letting your personal life spill over into your business life helps your authenticity." Friesen says that before the industrial revolution, people were their jobs. They were the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.

Michel gets into more good stuff, such as Google Places, collecting your customers' email addresses, getting listed in Internet directories and how to create email newsletters. He even gives tips on what to write about. It's time you got started.