Forget websites and email, the latest online marketing tool is social networking, through sites such as Bebo and Facebook. Essentially online communities, where people communicate through their own personal web pages, social networks offer huge potential for companies keen to raise awareness of their brands.

Yet a top online marketing expert, Alan Spurgeon of London-based online marketing company TH UK, says: "The bakery trade is guilty of not adopting online marketing techniques, like many other traditional industries. This is often down to a fear of technology."

However, forward-thinking companies that embrace the internet are able to steal a march on their competitors. "Companies that are flexible and modern have gained advantages over bigger organisations that have been either slow or failed to grasp the potential available online."

One of the largest plant bakeries in Ireland, Pat the Baker, is increasing its spend on social network-based marketing, following a very successful campaign on Bebo. The company has already spent up to E50,000 (£47,000), or 12% of its marketing budget, on Bebo and brand manager Oliver Durkin says that expectations have been met several times over. "Bebo is a bit like a shop counter, where we talk to our customers daily," he says, announcing plans to increase spend on Bebo.

Another bakery company in England, Outsider Tart, also finds social networks a useful way of promoting their business, complementing other online media. Set up in London just over 18 months ago by David Muniz and David Lesniak, both from the US, the company supplies US-style cupcakes, as well as muffins, scones, sweet pies, fresh tarts and morning goods, which are similar in texture to muffins. They also do "yummy treats for your pooch", including pupcakes.

The firm trades from its website and through its order line, delivering to any address in greater London, as well as selling at farmers’ markets in London. Its page on Facebook was set up just over a year ago by Muniz and Lesniak and is updated by Susann Jerry, the freelance marketing and PR consultant they employ. She says: "We get a lot of input from our Facebook family and we use other sites, such as YouTube, Flickr and the blogs on I-love-cupcakes."

She adds that, as a former newspaper journalist, it takes very little time each week to keep the Facebook page up to date. The company’s website is also important, along with other aspects such as the monthly emailed newsletter.

On Facebook, she aims to highlight items such as upcoming news of farmers’ markets, new lines and masterclasses.

"We’ve also had a lot of editorial coverage in newspapers and magazines, such as The Daily Mail, London Lite and Vogue, as well as online media like We’ve never done a single piece of advertising," she says.

Pieminister, in Bristol, was started in 2003 to supply high-quality gourmet pies. Director Jon Simon explains that they use several social networks, such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace. He says: "In terms of marketing returns, they are pretty good, as they are free to us, but they are very difficult to monitor". They spend a couple of hours a month updating their entries.

But, adds Simon: "Our website is much more important than the social networks for our marketing and we put a lot of effort into directing people to our site. That’s the key. You have to get the word out through all media and wait for the hits."

In terms of what online media are best for repeat business and recruiting new customers, he concludes: "You can learn a lot from poking around in the back pages of Google."

Alan Spurgeon of TH UK, which has done some minor online work for bakeries, says bakeries needlessly fear the perceived complexity of online marketing. "Online marketing blogs are very cost-effective and can be run by non-technically skilled people, yielding tremendous results," he says.

Another UK online marketing specialist, Susan Hallam, managing director of Hallam Communications in Nottingham, says there is a wide range of free social marketing tools that bakeries could be using, such as Qype. Bakeries can also benefit from putting video interviews about their business on sites like YouTube.

Ultimately, how readily social networking is embraced by bakers is a generational question. Robert Ditty, who heads the artisan bakers’ group in Ireland, admits that they are not using online enough. He says: "We’re all of an age not to have been brought up with PCs, but the next generation of bakers will communicate better online."