Selling is personal – and social media can help make it more so (or less, if you’re not careful.) Social media is having a game-changing effect on business. But can it be used to deliver genuine sales leads? Yes, if you’re using social intelligence tools to gather data.

But its value for sales people is less important than the impact it’s having on customers. Companies that haven’t factored the rise of social media into their sales strategies will be losing out in more ways than one.

As much as social media’s extended a company’s reach – to existing customers, business partners, potential leads – it’s also altered the speed and manner of those customers’ buying decisions.

As InsideView puts it: “Social selling is about recognizing that the buying process is controlled by a better informed and m….”

It’s debateable how effective blatant sales pitches are on social sites. So it’s better to go in softly – the watchword is engagement. “When people see you more, they like you more…. Especially when you’re seen as giving them value or good content or information,” says Dr Rachna Jain in this post.

So make sure you’re visible. Sharpen up your e-rep. Most of the time, buyers find sellers, according to Todd Youngblood. So start by having great content or “all that SEO gobbledygook is nonsense”.

Use LinkedIn as a “new way to cold call”, asking contacts for introductions. (But don’t drop the formalities just because you have a friend in common.) Search prospective customers at no (or low) cost, join groups and contribute to conversations. Don’t flog your wares. Engage with prospects personally and as appropriate.

Target effectively

Social sites are booming, so look beyond Google +. Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Go where your customers are – and if you’re not sure, there are plenty of lead gen and listening tools to help you find them. This post by Andy DeBrunner outlines how you can start using tools such as Pinterest or SlideShare to build relationships. Don’t dismiss local sites such as StreetLife – a valuable source of referrals as long as you don’t use social sites as blatant advertisements.

Networking is a verb

While pushy salesmanship won’t be appreciated, research suggests companies could afford to be less reticent about approaching customers online. Avoid sales patter and ‘canned’ content and instead become known as a source of great insight or added value. As Jeffrey Gitomer says: “The more you offer, the more attractive you will become.”

Refine your pitch

Getting the right tone can be tricky. John Jantsch, suggests using GoogleAdWords to test tweets for effectiveness. There are tools to track and reward social influencers who help your business, and “social media scientist” Dan Zarrella offers plenty of help on becoming more ‘contagious.’ If your sales team is of a reasonable size, it won’t hurt to draw up a social media policy.