Social media is no longer child’s play. With a few simple clicks, adults are establishing a massive online presence and taking over the Internet with Facebook pages, LinkedIn profiles, and Twitter accounts.

Whether for entertainment value, job opportunities, or online shopping, 79 percent of American adults used the Internet in 2009, a jump from 67 percent in 2005, according to the Pew Research Center. And of those, 46 percent used a social networking site, an increase from a mere 8 percent in 2005.

That’s good news for companies looking for alternative ways to create and connect to a customer base, says Leonard Nuara, of intellectual property law firm Greenberg Traurig of Florham Park. However, he says, before logging on to social networking sites, companies must be fully aware of what they are really getting themselves into. One bad tweet, one malicious post, one questionable status update could damage a company’s credibility. It could compromise private customer information and badly affect the bottom line.

Nuara will present “The Anti-Social Side of Social Networking,” a webinar sponsored by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education on Wednesday, February 10, at noon. Attorneys Michael Dunne of Pitney Hardin in Morristown and Ian Ballon of Greenberg Traurig join him. Cost: $135. Visit www.njicle.com, or call 732-249-0383.

Even if business owners are unfamiliar with Facebook lingo and Twitter hashtags, they’ll be able to easily follow the webinar, says Nuara, who will highlight the benefits and risks of social media, as well as how companies can best protect their brand and customers in the virtual world.

“You can’t ignore social media websites, but you have to recognize they’re not just bulletin boards where people post information,” he says. “They represent the good and the bad about society. They’re an opportunity and a threat.”

A nationally recognized author and lecturer, Nuara has worked in technology law for 25 years. He handles disputes involving Internet businesses, IT system failures, and IP infringement. He also advises companies on legal matters related to computer technology, including protecting content on mobile platforms, creating enforceable electronic agreements, and building secure social networks.

Raised in Scotch Plains, Nuara became interested in business after watching his father start dozens of companies. “He sold insurance. He owned a pen company, a soap company, a dry cleaner,” he says. His mother worked at Bloomingdales.

Nuara’s interest in business segued into an interest in law and technology while he was earning his bachelor’s degree at Boston College. “I liked solving other people’s problems, and I negotiated for them with teachers,” he says. “Then I took a computer science class in my sophomore year and finished it in three weeks. It just clicked.”

During his junior year Nuara worked for a programming firm, but after finishing a large project, the company’s owner refused to pay him. “I decided then I was going to become a computer lawyer so that didn’t happen again,” says Nuara. He earn his law degree from Seton Hall.

Nuara met his wife, Janet, a former systems developer and designer, in college, and the couple has two daughters, ages 18 and 20. In addition to his full-time job, Nuara is also an adjunct professor at Seton Hall, where he teaches a computer law class.

Defining social media. Social media fosters social interaction and creates online communities, a perfect combination for companies looking for inexpensive ways to promote their products and simultaneously interact with consumers.

“People think social media is just for children, but they’re not really focusing on how many adults also use social media,” Nuara says. “Facebook has 300 million active users. It would be one of the biggest nations in the world if it was a unified entity.”

Virtual opportunities. With social networking, companies can create an online presence that’s more hip than their formal webpage, where nuts-and-bolts information is provided. So if websites are like a business’s brick-and-mortar store, social networking is like hosting a 24/7 store event that all customers want to attend, Nuara says.

“Twitter shows the lighter side of the business, the fun things that you want to promote, just like a store event brings in customers so you can connect with them in a fun way,” he says. “Social media allow immediate feedback in a fun atmosphere. They are interactive, and that puts a personal face on what is often a bland corporate existence. You can build a connection with a customer base that’s much more personal, much more timely, and much more relevant.”

But … Social networking is like traveling to Los Angeles or New York. The environment can be exciting and full of opportunities. But it can also be dangerous if you are not aware of your surroundings. Leave your guard down, Naura says, and you or your company could become an easy target.

The immediate, unregulated, and often anonymous access — part of the appeal of social networking websites — can also lead to common threats including hacking, hate speech, cyberbullying, and theft of personal information. Companies must be aware of these risks and remain on high alert to avoid damage to their brand or customer base, says Nuara. He suggests creating a terms-of-use agreement, establishing log-in mechanisms, or restricting users.

“If you build it, they will come, but you don’t know who’s going to come or what they’re going to say” Naura says. “Each social medium has a set of rules, no different than tennis clubs, golf clubs, or stadiums. If someone next to you is violating those rules, you have a basis to say to management that they’re violating the rules, and management then has a right to address it.”

Nuara also suggests companies have procedures in place to avoid internal damage, whether intentional or accidental. “Think before you type, and realize your audience,” he says. After reading tweets from a young professional about “how much having a flat tire sucked,” Naura recommended the young man create two Twitter accounts — one for company business and another for his friends and family.

“For many of these sites, it’s simple because they are so readily updateable and changeable,” he says. “Information doesn’t always go through the typical corporate channels.”

But beware — it might not go through the legal or communications departments before being posted. “You might have a ‘Tell Us What You Think About Us’ forum and someone is using it to trash your company,” Naura says. “You have to be aware of that so you can address it.”

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