The days of in-person networking are quickly being overpowered by connecting on the internet. In the past five years, connecting on social networking sites has rocketed from a niche activity into a phenomenon that engages tens of millions of internet users. Now, instead of connecting at an in-person event, you can reach hundreds, even thousands, of potential customers online. Social networking can help you reach new markets and enhance your customer service.

In today’s networking space, it’s important to know how to choose whom to connect with online. There are two different types of networkers online—the posters and the seekers. Your business is a poster, which means you actively post valuable information, resources, tips, and offers. The seekers are your customers—they’re actively seeking your products or services. You’ll find seekers in discussion areas, forums, groups and engaging on fan pages.

When searching for quality contacts to network with online, start with connection sites, such as LinkedIn or Xing, and look for high-level networkers (HLN). You’ll know an HLN when you see one; they’re active online, have at least 500 connections and have powerful profiles, which means their profiles are set up completely. Make sure these contacts have at least one of the three criteria before you connect with them online. Some examples of HLNs would be decision makers, executives, the media, and the movers and shakers in your industry.

Don’t let the fact that you don’t yet know the person hold you back from sending an invite to connect. Simply be transparent, and let them know why you’d like to connect with them online. Whether you’re offering your help, sending them a resource or introducing them to one of your connections, make sure you make it about how you can help them and not how they can help you.

Another way to find your target market online is to investigate competitors’ marketing methods. See where another business that offers the same or similar products and services advertises their links and posts on social sites. Be sure each location makes sense and has a large contingent of people in your targeted market. Searching in your field will often turn up places where your audience goes when they’re looking for something in your industry.

Groups and discussion areas on social sites are all over the internet from LinkedIn and Xing to Twitter and Facebook. Most social networking sites have community areas for people who have similar interests to gather and connect. It’s important to find a dozen or so of these groups and discussion areas and not only join and monitor them but engage in the conversations as well.

With any social media platform, you need to be creative and find ways to provide value and engage your target market. One of the best ways to accomplish this and position yourself as an industry leader is to build and launch a Facebook fan page. Fans are enthusiastic, and if they like what they see and read, they’ll connect with you, become loyal supporters and tell their friends. This is how word-of-mouth will grow.