“As a business, do I really need to be on Twitter and Facebook?”

That’s a good question.

But let’s back it up a bit, about 236 years ago, back when some intrepid Scotsmen first wrote down the rules for this peculiar game wherein gentlemen swing sticks at pebbles on the ground. Back then, there were probably people just like you asking:

“Do I really need to learn how to play golf?”

A valid question in the 18th century, but today, no one questions the strong connection between golf and business.

The relationship between business and social network marketing isn’t exactly the same as with golf, but there are two important lessons to be learned:

• The prudence of early adoption for potentially powerful marketing tools.
• The oblique manner in which seemingly frivolous pursuits can be valuable in ways you never imagined.

Let’s take a look at both of these in relation to social media.

Early Adoption and the Full Potential of Social Media

It’s too late to be an early adopter of social media. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are already household names and are already being tapped by businesses large and small. But in spite of social media’s publicity, it’s still regarded in the mainstream media as a curious, yet hopeful anomaly like electric cars and bacon-flavored salt. Social media hasn’t yet reached critical mass – but it’s getting closer everyday.

In fact, in the second week of March 2010, Facebook overtook Google in terms of web traffic. The margin was razor thin – just .04 percent – but it represents a major shift in the way that people are finding content on the web. Matt Tatham from Experian Hitwise, the firm that reported the data, made TIME’s Quotes of the Day with his analysis:  “People want information from friends they trust, vs. the anonymity of a search engine.”

In other words, social media is reaching its tipping point.

As a business seeking traffic to your website, it’s important to become a trusted presence in the social media sphere. But doing so takes time. And as social media gets closer and closer to becoming the next Main Street of the Internet, competition for virtual “real estate” will only become fiercer.

Stake your claim now.

Ambient Intimacy

So, we’re all convinced that social media is valuable today and will be even more valuable tomorrow. But how, exactly, will it benefit your business? After all, isn’t Twitter just a platform for self-indulgent over-sharing and asinine, potentially incriminating, banter about pop stars and political pariahs?

“Why does anyone – let alone my customers – care about what I had for breakfast?”

You’re not wrong about that. Nobody cares about the runniness of your eggs and the crispness of your bacon (unless you’re a food critic). But they do care about making a personal connection with you. This is the trust vs. anonymity dichotomy that Tatham was talking about. Without a personal connection, there can be no trust. And without trust, no one will click your links, open your emails or buy your products.

The problem is that most business relationships don’t lend themselves very well to making personal connections. Especially if you are reaching out to hundreds of potential customers everyday. You don’t have the leisure of playing the back nine with each one of them or buying all your clients a round of cocktails during happy hour. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a few seconds of chitchat across the register while the credit card machine fires up.

Social media revolutionizes the way businesses interface with past and prospective customers by opening up a space for personal interactions to happen. It’s a low stakes atmosphere completely different from a sales negotiation or a direct mailing or a customer service call.  And it’s in this space where that enduring, valuable connection is made.

Leisa Reichelt described it best when she coined the term “ambient intimacy.” She said:

Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.

Without social media, touching base and catching up just doesn’t happen. No one’s going to schedule a meeting or a conference call just to say, “Hey, what’s up? Still lovin’ your product.” Likewise, no one wants to pick up their phone on a Sunday afternoon to hear you say, “Hey, just a heads up, we’ve got a big sale going on tomorrow morning.” And the chances of someone swinging by your office just to say “Hi” and talk about basketball is even slimmer.

But this is precisely how lasting connections are made. This is how loyal customers are created. This is how you put a human face to your company’s name. This is how you compete in an increasingly dehumanizing marketplace.

Twitter and Facebook give you the opportunity to start up a no-strings attached conversation at any time and, when it’s pertinent, talk a little shop as well. Not every tweet or Facebook update leads to a conversion, just like each golf game doesn’t yield a business deal or a job offer. But if you never accept someone’s offer to be sociable, you’ll never find yourself at that intersection between the personal and professional spheres that translate into opportunity.

Social media is where the conversations are happening. More businesses are talking. And more customers are listening. Don’t you want to add your two cents?