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Although it’s a great tool, social media marketing also has its pitfalls, and many companies — some of the world’s largest, in fact — have fallen victim to antiquated thinking about a modern medium.

Following are four important components to consider when establishing your professional presence in online social networking:

1. Play to your strengths. Experts warn against trying to be too many things to too many people. Stick with what you know. Retail giant Wal-Mart recently saw its ill-conceived Facebook campaign go down in flames in part because it tried to offer its users fashion and style advice. This was a complete about-face from its core-competency of a discount superstore.

2. Listen to the members. Social Media Today, which helps companies leverage social media, likens a firm’s marketing efforts to conversations at a cocktail party. Retailers can certainly drive a topic, but it’s important not to steer potential customers off their subject and onto yours. Businesses will have more success connecting with clients if they ride the wave of whatever is being discussed.

3. Respect their privacy. Facebook allows users to search and locate other members by name. And retailers often possess databases of customers numbering in the hundreds or thousands.

“You can find customers on Facebook and ask them to become fans,” says Matt Giovanisci, marketing director at Niagara Pools & Spas in Blackwood, N.J. “But you don’t want to go too far. I wouldn’t ever invade a customer’s page. People would be turned off by that.”

4. Avoid controversy. A company’s Facebook page is a reflection of its values and standards. Adding some personal information about your operation will make you more approachable, but stay away from topics that may alienate fans such as politics, religion and other divisive subjects.

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