Dustin Burke just wants to be popular, and Twitter is his scorecard.

Burke, who manages the Twitter feed for Herrman Lumber, which operates 10 stores in Missouri and Kansas, may be construction supply's King of Tweets. Every business day he sends an average of four to five 140-character messages on everything from This Day in History to weather-related store specials. Both the volume and variety of topics "tweeted" outpace virtually all other dealers.

"People want to follow you if you are interesting," says Burke, whose Twitter feeds for Herrman are read by more than 750 "followers," as subscribers to the feeds are known. "So I use Twitter basically to get tons of followers and get our name out there."

Herrman Lumber is among a growing number of LBM operations integrating social media tools into their marketing. ProSales research turned up more than 160 Twitter feeds and 150 Facebook pages created by LBM companies. We also found an abundance of interest in social media, sharp differences on whether these new tools are worthwhile, and scant hard evidence regarding social media's impact on a business.

"It's an emerging media. I believe that if you do not take interest in it and you do not apply it to your marketing plans right now, you are going to be left behind," says Chris Byrd, corporate IT manager for Potters Ace Home Centers, which operates 18 stores in Tennessee and Kentucky. "It's an affordable way to attract a lot of folks to your promotions you are offering each month."

Byrd doesn't have solid numbers on the effect of using social media, but a recent experiment leaves him encouraged.

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Potters sent an e-mail to 7,000 people that, along with other ads, included two coupons that recipients were invited to re-post on their social media websites. The coupons were usable solely on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving and were for 50% off of any store item worth $30 or less and for $25 off an EdenPure heater.

Byrd says the tracking system he used for the offer–run by a marketing company named CityTwist–found that 6% of the two coupons turned in by customers had been printed off of social media pages. Potters sold all 100 of the EdenPure heaters promoted in the coupon.

Nothing But Net Social media got that name because the Internet-based programs involved–particularly Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn–promote sharing, interaction, and discussion. The levels of interaction and sharing can vary based on each user's personal preferences, motives, and interests. That differentiates them from blogs, e-mail newsletters, and traditional Internet sites, which tend to send information one way, from sender to reader, with only rare opportunities for recipients to share information with others.

As these social media sites became popular, it was only a matter of time before construction supply companies wanted in. But now that they've arrived, dealers have found there's no sure way to deliver a return on their investment in time and technology.

Most said they used it not so much as a tool to conduct business but as a way to reach new customers and inform current customers. Some dealers abandoned the effort not long after they created a Facebook page or Twitter account. Others keep it up to achieve different ends.

"I would get rid of Twitter. I have no use for Twitter," declares Shannon Moynihan, marketing director at North Reading, Mass.-based Moynihan Lumber. "The reason I added it was because a buddy of mine told me that updating Facebook and Twitter helps with search engine optimization"–the use of relevant words and links to a website from other sources that will make a site rate higher on searches by services like Google, Yahoo!, and Bing. Higher ratings mean your company is more likely to be found.

Burke says he focuses on "branding," or getting Herrman's name out before the public. He sends out Tweets multiple times a day and updates Herrman's Facebook page several times per week. He uses Twitter to hook the potential customers and Facebook to provide them with specials to get them through the door.

Along with the more than 750 Twitter followers, at press time Herrman Lumber had 201 "Likes" on its Facebook, meaning a person had tagged that page as a favorite. Content from that corporate page then will show up on the user's Facebook home page. In addition, Facebook automatically notifies that person's Facebook friends regarding what the original person has done, an action that often leads the friends to check out the page that the original person liked.

Byrd, meanwhile, takes a more restrained approach to how he uses Potters Ace's Facebook and Twitter. He says the coupon he posts on the site is good for the whole month so he doesn't overload the customers and viewers, but yet still stays relevant. Potters has more than 150 "Likes" on its Facebook page and more than 80 followers on Twitter.

Time Is Money While it typically doesn't cost any money to set up social media sites beyond what you've already paid for Internet service and a computer, it does require payment in the form of staff time and attention. Consistency is key, experts say, and it deserves to be noted that companies that post on a consistent basis often had the most followers and thus were more likely to reach their target audiences and markets. ProSales' research of construction supply efforts found the Facebook pages with the fewest posts and least activity often had the fewest followers.

While some big construction supply firms have jumped into the pool–ProBuild's Facebook page has more than 1,000 "Likes," for instance, and McCoy's Building Supply has more than 350–others have yet to decide whether social media is worth the effort.

"At present, ABC Supply does not have a social marketing program," spokeswoman Nancy Deptolla said in an e-mail. "But the company is currently reviewing social media options to determine how they may be used in ways that benefit ABC Supply and its customers."

Gaithersburg, Md.-based TW Perry has also taken a calculated approach to entering the world of social media. Tonya Watkins Farina, director of business development, says the company is focused on doing what best suits TW Perry customers. She says that if the company finds that customers don't have an interest in social media, TW Perry will not force it upon them. Still, the company does have a Twitter feed as well as a YouTube channel, but has yet to get Facebook started.

"What TW Perry offers our customers is service," Farina says. "If we can serve our customer base through social media and make our relationship stronger with them, we will utilize these media to do so."

Is it Time for You to Socialize? Creating a presence on a social media Website like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or LinkedIn is pretty much free and remarkably simple to execute. But before you start committing your LBM operation to social media, ask yourself these questions:

* Will social media help us reach the audience we aim to serve?

* Which social media sites are most appropriate for what we do?

* How much time and what resources are we willing to put into our social media presence?

* Who will run the social media operations?

* Social media often involves writing off-the-cuff, pithy, often funny comments about things. Does that fit our company's style? Who in our company would we trust to do that?

* How will we know if our efforts have succeeded?