If you were to make a list of up-and-coming business trends, social media strategies would probably be near the top. Actually, scratch that “up-and-coming” part—social media is already here. However, thousands of companies are rushing headlong into the profile-creating, news-tweeting, blog-posting frenzy…only to find that their valiant efforts are not getting the results they had hoped.

If you’re looking for fans, followers and friends to gather around your business, don’t panic. There is simple advice that will help businesses avoid the pitfalls and make a strong online impact.

When it comes to building a successful social network for your company, you need to understand that there’s a lot of prep work to be done. You can’t just set up a Facebook profile for your company, tweet once or twice a day, and expect public interest in your company to shoot through the roof. Far from it, actually.

Think about it this way: if you were in charge of your company’s booth at a trade show or conference, you wouldn’t just slap your company’s logo onto a piece of poster board, place your business cards on the table, and hope for the best, would you? Of course not. Yet that’s exactly how some companies approach social media—and that’s why so many of these initiatives fail.

If you want to become a meaningful part of social conversations and interactions, you’ve got to know who your target “fan base” is, where they spend their time online, and what sorts of content and programming is valuable and relevant to them, and will foster their continued interest and participation.

Here are five social media pitfalls to avoid:

Pitfall No. 1: Running a social network like a traditional business. If you want to run a social company, you first need to understand that almost everything you do is a two-way street. That is to say, you’re not going to prosper if your products and services are designed solely by folks on the inside. You need to embrace the perspectives and contributions of your employees, as well as those of customers and partners.

Pitfall No. 2: Underinvesting in social initiatives and abandoning them too soon. Understand that a social network is organic—it won’t materialize with a proverbial snap of the fingers. Early on, you’ll need to invest a good deal of time, thought and money in attracting fans and followers—and your efforts will need to be sustained. Only after you’ve built a firm foundation will your social network begin to sustain itself through participant contribution and recommendation.

In general, successful strategies include posting quality content that people want to consume, letting customers tell their stories and post their grievances, and then responding to their criticisms. Also, make sure that prospects are able to learn about your business through customer and employee testimonials . Lastly, remember that using multiple approaches—for example, a blog, Facebook profile and interactive website —will reach more people.

Pitfall No. 3: Neglecting to find ways to encourage and inspire your followers and fans. When you stop to think about it, you’ll realize that your fans and followers are essentially volunteering their time and energy to serve as developers, sounding boards, and advertisements for your company. So for goodness’ sake, respect what they have to say and take their input to heart.

Pitfall No. 4: Relying on a “build-it-and-they-will-come” mentality. Ummm…you don’t really think that launching a new website and firing off posts at various online networking hot spots will bring fans and followers flocking, do you? To some extent—usually a large one—you’ll need to purposefully reach out to potential community members and make it worth their while to accept your invitation.

Rolling out a community and just expecting people to join as friends or followers is a flawed philosophy. Marketing 101 principles still apply. That means you need compelling incentives to have people join your community. You also need an aggressive programming strategy, one that includes defining your key audiences and targeting them through all available channels, to ensure that they know that you want to build a relationship with them.

Pitfall No. 5: Delaying the process of going social. Contrary to what you may wish, your company doesn’t have the luxury of waiting until it’s “convenient” to go social. Why? Well, you have competitors, right? And if you don’t start gathering loyal followers and fans now, there’s a good chance that some other company will woo them first.

One of the best strategies for going social as quickly and effectively as possible is to designate employees and subject matter experts to act as community success managers focused on fostering community growth and member satisfaction. Separate from your sales and support teams, these community leaders should have the ability to advise members of the community on how to best participate with the company and with each other. If you do things well, you’ll find that they’ll generally serve as internal and external advocates for others in your organization—be it employees, partners or customers.

Barry Libert is the author of Social Nation: How to Harness the Power of Social Media to Attract Customers, Motivate Employees, and Grow Your Business (Wiley, 2010 www.socialnationbook.com). He is chairman and CEO of Mzinga, a provider of social software, services and analytics that improve business performance.