There’s no question now that a company needs to maintain a presence on social media. These days, having an account on Facebook, Twitter, or the like is as important as having a company website. But the number of options available to a brand are frequently on the rise as new networks emerge to clamor for attention and members. How do you know whether and when to hop onboard a new platform?

Especially for a newer, smaller business with less money at hand, making smart decisions about when to jump on the bandwagon is crucial. There are some risks any time you open an account on a new site. But on the other side of the coin, ignoring new networks means you could miss getting a leg up on the next big thing. Here are some points to consider before you join any new social site.

Why You Shouldn’t Join Everything

Before your business enters any social media platform, you’ll want to be prepared. You should understand what the network was designed for and whether it is relevant for your company. You need a plan, and having a detailed plan for every network available on the Internet would require an impractical amount of work.

Even if you have the time to invest in researching an addition to your social media presence, consider the costs of working it into your business routine. Anyone using a new platform will need to be trained to use a new network and understand its role for the company. You’ll want to make sure that training is the best use of your employees’ time.

While it would be tempting to link all your accounts to a tool that allows you to post updates across multiple networks in order to cut down the amount of training needed, over-reliance on that approach can make you look too much like a robot. There should be some human element to all of your accounts.

Also, joining a platform and then abandoning your account reflects poorly on your business. To the other members, it will look like you either don’t understand how to use it or you are unapproachable on that channel. Neither case is good for your reputation.

Do some research about the new network. And don’t just listen to the pundits on tech blogs who swear that it’s the next big thing; at some point, that’s been the claim for almost every new platform.

How to Weigh Your Options

To make the decision about joining a new network, you should first ask what that particular platform will accomplish for your brand. Do you want to reach out to new customers or strengthen your connections to existing ones? Do you want to interact with other businesses to forge partnerships? Are you mostly selling your merchandise or your company culture? Different networks are better equipped to achieve those goals.

The most important factor in deciding whether or not to join a new network is this: is your target audience there? Are they really engaging with the community? For example, take a look at Google+. The network generated extensive hype, and many people joined, but did not actually use the platform regularly. A few people converted, but Google+ has failed to make notable inroads against the dominance of Facebook and Twitter.

Another red flag to watch for in a new social network is a excessive similarity to existing sites. Copy-catting usually ends badly, since the original is usually the most successful and will attract more members. Also, examine whether the target demographic is too narrow. Sites aimed at very small groups can fail quickly if they don’t get a critical mass of engagement. For example, a site called Eons launched in July 2006 and was only open to U.S. residents older than 50. The target audience never latched on.

Got advice for how to pick which social sites will be successful? Let us know in the comments!

[Image credits: Lee Haywood, Andres RodriguezWolfgang Sauber]