Many businesses, in an effort to stay in the black, cut spending on marketing and publicity.

But if no one knows about your latest offering, no one's going to buy it. Reaching customers at the right time with the right product or service is the fuel that will keep your company running. One way businesses big and small are getting the message out these days is through social media. Companies from

Starbucks

(SBUX) - Get Report

to

Comcast

(CMCSA) - Get Report

are clicking to sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to reach out and touch their customers. Here are eight things to remember when hitting the social-media circuit.

Mine your network:

Set up your profile and start reaching out to people already in your network. Upload that list of loyal customers you gathered over the years. Hook up with those in your field or industry. Heck, even reach out to old school chums. The bigger your social network, the better your chance of getting heard.

Set limits:

Social media not only can take up your life, it can open it and your business to outside scrutiny like never before. Before diving in, think about how transparent you want to be. Logging on is a great way to give your business a human face online, but you must think strategically about how much you want to reveal and share, cautions

Juliette Powell

, author of "33 Million People in the Room" (Financial Times Press). "For me, social network is really about branding," she says.

Determine your level of commitment:

Blogs take time to write. Joining social Web sites, not as much. Be realistic about how much time you want to devote and plan accordingly. Bob Heyman, chief search officer at

Mediasmith

, a media buying and strategy agency in San Francisco, recommends starting with one site. His company, for example, landed some big clients through LinkedIn, thanks in part to the CEO assiduously building his network to 500 contacts.

Once you've got the hang of social media, join other sites like Tumblr, Digg and DailyHub. Blog away about that new best customer-service award your business just won from the local Chamber of Commerce. Upload before-and-after videos of haircuts your salon can do.

Chat first, pitch later:

It's like any cocktail party: Before you toot your own horn, break the ice by doing some chitchatting. That means after setting up your profile, surf around to see who's writing about your industry and introduce yourself as a potential source or expert who can be relied upon. "People have to like you, want to know you, then they'll trust you and be willing to pay you," says

Joel Comm

, a social media expert and author of "Twitter Power: How to Dominate Your Market One Tweet at a Time" (Wiley).

More importantly, it is a direct line to your customers. So handle questions and complaints as quickly as possible. And be real, says Leland Harden, co-author of "Digital Engagement" (AMACOM). "Don't go out there and use corporate speak or think purely business," he says. "Engage your customer. They will carry on the conversation if you talk to them like a normal person and participate in these communities as a normal person."

After all, word of mouth is still the best form of publicity. And thanks to social media, you can leverage your loyal "fans." "The idea is to mobilize those brand evangelists so you get this nuclear effect and they tell their friends," says Heyman, who is also co-author of "Digital Engagement."

Status is everything:

One unobtrusive way to talk up your company or a new product or service is to update your status on Facebook or fire off a Twitter "tweet." Says

Twitter

co-founder Biz Stone: "Imagine a local coffee shop inviting customers to follow them on Twitter via SMS. At 11:30 a.m. each day, they could send out today's lunch special just when folks are starting to get hungry. For a business that does not exist online, it would be a savvy way to pack the house."

Don't give up:

It's not enough just to set up a profile. You have to devote some time to keeping it up to date. The Internet is all about getting new information fast. So update that status report often. Fire off a tweet once a week. "The most common mistake people make is they lose interest," says

Michael Schneider

, founder and CEO of Fluidesign, a Los Angeles-based interactive design and branding company.

Take up less time by buying a smart phone, many of which now have applications that allow you to do it all while you're walking between meetings.

Join the revolution or be left behind:

If you don't start managing your company's identity, someone else will. It could be a disgruntled customer who rants on Twitter. It could be an I-hate-X-company club on MySpace. "Whether you're part of the conversation is up to you," says Powell. "If you start Googling your name and an interview you gave five years ago that you're not proud of is the first thing that pops up, it's your responsibility if you want to succeed to start seeding the real message about you."

Not surprisingly, Schneider's

Fluidesign

wants to help companies manage their social-media reputation. For a fee, which will be based on your company's size, his staff will monitor social media for any mention of your business, help you craft a response, and help you build micro-sites for new products and services.

The price is right:

Unlike traditional marketing and publicity, using social media is free -- for now. It doesn't cost a cent to join, just your time. But if you truly believe time is money, then it's time well spent. According to Stone,

Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

announced it made $1 million in sales through Twitter messages alone.

And frankly, the more you socialize online, linking and providing value to others, the higher you can get on search engines like Google. The best thing: You didn't have to pay an SEO expert to do it.

Lan Nguyen is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for the New York Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, Worth magazine and Star magazine.