Facebook creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced last week that the social media platform has reached 500 million users; to put in perspective, the population of the United States is 307 million. That’s 5,787 pieces of information shared each second on Facebook, if each user posted just one item per day. People around the world are literally connecting with each other and sharing news with just one click.

For another big social media player, Twitter, things are also snowballing. Its user base is growing at a rate reminiscent of Facebook, with 106 million users and 300,000 new users signing up every day.

Consumers have a lot to say, so get in the conversation.

These social media platforms provide organizations with a huge opportunity to learn about their target audience—what they think, what they want, what they like. It’s the cheapest and most accessible market research you’ll find. Consumers love their brands and like to know they’re being heard. That’s what public relations, and good business, is all about—connecting with your publics, listening to them and providing the information they want.

How can you get in the game?

I did a little market research myself. When thinking about this post, I asked my Twitter followers, comprised of many PR and marketing professionals, What are basic tips you’ve found most helpful when using social media on behalf of your client or organization? @AdrienneRehm says, “Don’t be a surly salesperson – it’s a major turnoff. Use [social media] to converse and establish relationships among target audience.” I couldn’t agree more. Consumers don’t need another outlet for companies to try to sell them something. They want interesting information, funny tidbits, exclusive deals on their favorite products & services, etc. As I manage Twitter & Facebook accounts for clients here at Dittoe PR, I always ask myself, “Would I be interested in this Tweet? Or would this post make me want to de-friend this company/organization?”

You don’t have to be selling something to be on social media.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal tells how the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) used social media to communicate information during the Gulf Oil Spill. GOHSEP used ExactTarget’s Twitter platform CoTweet to send out emergency info and answer questions via Twitter. (Kudos to Eric Kokonas who landed that story for DPR client ExactTarget!)

Don’t worry, there are tools to help.

GOHSEP used CoTweet to stay organized on Twitter. Twitter’s basic website doesn’t offer a lot of features for answering and sorting messages, so CoTweet allows multiple people to communicate through corporate accounts & stay in sync while doing so. There are several different social media tools, like CoTweet, that are designed to help businesses maximize their social media ROI. CoTweet tweaks the Twitter experience to match that of a more sophisticated CRM solution allowing companies to manage multiple accounts from a single dashboard, support multiple editors for each account, track conversations, assign roles and create follow-up tasks. Other social media tools to check out are Social Radar, TweetDeck and HootSuite.

Think you’re ready to get your business or organization in the social media conversation? If you’re still a bit apprehensive, don’t worry! That’s why there are PR professionals to help. After all, communication is our specialty.