Talk about ubiquitous. Last year, Facebook for the first time drew more visitors than Google. Just as we couldn’t dream of doing business without the Internet today, social media is rapidly becoming indispensable.

While Google made it easier to find information on just about anything, social media makes it easier to push information to a select group of people or to a broad audience.

But rather than providing an impersonal resource, such as a search, social media is about…well…being social. That’s an essential part of social media’s appeal and combines both old and new skills for brokers and agents.

This month, we’re going to look at some general ground rules, and in following columns we’ll explore specific channels, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

First, think about why you want to use social media and what it can do for your business. Traditional advertising helps to increase brand recognition and build a good reputation among consumers, who you hope will tell others. That positive word-of-mouth advertising can be invaluable. (Think of the movies.) Social media helps put that process in overdrive.

“You can automate that word of mouth,” says Celent analyst Craig Beattie, co-author of a paper on social media and the insurance industry. According to the Celent paper, the three main reasons businesses look to social networks are that they are a cheap form of advertising, they provide a growing communication channel and they are increasingly influential.

For advertising, social media helps to amplify the impact of a traditional media campaign. For instance, if a friend has just told you about a funny commercial, you don’t have to wait in front of the television and hope it airs again; you can go to YouTube and watch it any time. The real payback comes when lots of people do the same thing.

“It’s elongating the effect at no additional cost,” Beattie says.

Still, social media is best viewed as aiding other marketing efforts. Typically, it needs to build on something, such as an event or a print or media campaign.

“There needs to be something to spark the conversation,” Beattie says. “The role of social media is to keep the ball rolling; it doesn’t create an event in itself.”

With those points in mind, here are some ground rules before you get going in the social media world.

Remember that what goes on the Internet stays on the Internet. Social media is a public forum. Even content you send to one person can find its way to the entire world. Former congressman Anthony Weiner’s tweeted underwear is an all too vivid reminder. While you might be able to delete something, copies will still exist. If you want to keep something private, keep it offline.

Understand the culture. It’s not all the same. Each of the different types of social media has its own feel and uses. People expect a different experience on Facebook, where you can provide more detailed information along with multimedia, than they do on Twitter, which is limited to posts, or “tweets,” of 140 characters.

Be ready to share. People expect interaction on social media sites. That’s why they go there. Be ready to reply to comments. This works to your advantage when customers share positive comments, or even advice, which can help to build up an automatic “FAQ” that customers can find when they search online.

Keep it personal. People expect their social media experience to be personal. This may be a challenge for some corporations, but no one wants to get the Facebook or Twitter equivalent of a robo-call. Big insurers like Geico or Progressive use the gecko and Flo as avatars to achieve this feel. For smaller firms, this personal presence may be the agents or brokers themselves.

Stay on channel. If someone contacts you via Facebook, they expect a reply on Facebook, not on Twitter. If there is a reason to move it to another channel, suggest that on the original channel.

Beware of regulations and privacy concerns. The rules still apply to regulated companies on Facebook and Twitter. And, naturally, it’s all legally discoverable. Also be careful to ensure that the channel is appropriate to the discussion. For instance, detailed claim information or personal data shouldn’t be broadcast on social media.

Monitor social media. People are talking about your company on social media even if you’re not yet talking to them. Insurers often use Twitter to respond to comments about their brand. And of course, search engines pick up Twitter messages.

With those ground rules in mind, you’re ready to get going on social media.