Blogs, Twitter, Facebook — social media provides so many ways to reach out to consumers and clients. How do you know what format is right for your brand or business? The first step is understanding how each of these social media platforms works.

Twitter: Twitter is a microblogging platform; you have exactly 140 characters (about the length of a text message) to convey a quick bit of information. Twitter is frequently compared to a cocktail party — there are a variety of conversations all going on at once, and you drift in and out of several at a time. Twitter can be used to direct followers to blog or Facebook posts, or to offer quick snippets of information.

How to use Twitter: Your brand needs a distinct voice to be heard in the crowd. Don’t just share links to blog posts or contests; talk about more than just your brand.

Facebook: Facebook is the online coffee shop, where friends meet to catch up and find out what’s new and cool. Facebook allows you to share multiple mediums — blog posts, photos, videos, quick snippets of information — with fans, in a format that is more detailed than Twitter’s. Keep in mind, though, that your Facebook updates show up in your fan’s feed in between updates from their actual friends; like Twitter, think of this as a conversation, not a billboard.

How to use Facebook: The best Facebook feeds are those from brands who are able to personalize their business. Successful brands have a voice — and sometimes a face — behind their Facebook updates, someone who makes the brand feel like a friend, not a company.

Blogs: A blog is old school social media at its best. Blogs allow you space to talk in detail about your brand or product, to provide consumers with in-depth information or inside scoop. But keep your blog posts relatively short — no one wants to read a dissertation-length treatise on why you’re the brand leader — and make sure you’re posting consistently. You’ll never create a following if your posting schedule is something akin to “once in a blue moon.”

How to use a blog: Keep blog posts focused and tightly edited; provide readers with enough detail to keep them engaged and informed. Make sure that your posts have a voice and a point — and, ideally, some type of narrative. People love a story, because it gives them a way to relate to you — or your brand.

No matter what platform you choose, there are a few general rules to keep in mind.

Updates — no matter what their length — should be well-written and grammatically correct. It’s ok to draft a Tweet or Facebook status update in the way you would draft a blog post; just because you’re limited to 140 characters doesn’t mean you can’t carefully edit what you’re writing.

Engaging in a social media forum means being social — take time to engage with your fans, followers and commenters. And don’t stop at responding to conversation they direct at you; engage with them on their own ground as well. The cocktail party analogy is useful here — no one likes the guy who only talks about himself. The same is true for brands.

Finally, if you’re going to use social media to reach clients and customers, make a commitment to do it right. Designate or hire someone to manage your blog and update your Twitter and Facebook feeds. In order to create a significant online presence, you need someone who can be online for a significant amount of time each day.

Engaging with consumers via social media requires a commitment of time and resources, but the return is amazing: you will create a community of fans who are loyal to and enthusiastic about your brand. And that’s absolutely worth the effort.

Photo via Twitter.