Social Networking Helps You Find Solutions

Every day in business, you're either looking for a solution to a problem or you want to be the solution to somebody else's problem. In an effort to achieve those two goals, we network. Online social networking has become the de rigueur method used today--and sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn offer the promise of extending your reach and making useful business contacts.

But the efficacy of online social networking for business has been debatable. When you begin, you often give far more to the community than you receive, and it's hard to separate business networking from networking to build personal connections. While some argue that personal networking adds value because it helps you increase your contacts, others shy away altogether for fear of getting sucked into unproductive activities like endless instant-messaging and following Twitter feeds.

And there's no simple formula that indicates how much time we need to spend on social networking sites in order to see results with an increasing number of useful contacts and improved business growth. Nevertheless, as successful networkers argue, it's good, even important, to get started so that the contacts are there when you need them.

Build Your Presence

Three of the most popular social networking applications--Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter--have risen to become standard tools that are used across all industries and interests. While setting up a complete profile on these applications should be one of your initial default actions, it's more important to talk to connected people in your industry and ask them what services they're using. Your industry may have specific user groups in niche sites that connect businesses with consumers. As just one example, if you're in the restaurant or hospitality industry, you'll want to be on--and follow--Yelp.

A complete profile is welcoming, so be sure to take the time to fill out all the public information, from past job history to current employment, that you want people to know. An incomplete profile screams, "Since I didn't have time to finish this profile, I don't have time to participate in this social network or to talk to you."

Being easy to reach means, as well, providing direct contact information, such as your IM addresses, Skype user name, e-mail address, Twitter name, and phone number. You should make yourself easy to find by including appropriate keywords in all your profiles. For example, if you work in solar power, include words such as "energy," "sustainable," and "green." Your discoverability will be tied closely to your blog, if you have one, as well as to your LinkedIn profile, which will rank very high in Google searches, especially if you customize the public URL with your real name.

One important note: Don't discount the networking value of your e-mail signature. Beyond your position and e-mail address, include in your signature both your best contact information and links to your blog and LinkedIn profile. People you contact will want to investigate who you are, and if they like what they see, they'll want to follow up.

Clean Up What's Already Online

You probably already have an online presence on a variety of sites. You should definitely clean up inactive profiles and compromising content, says David McClure, producer of the Graphing Social Patterns conference, which focuses on the business and technology of social networking platforms. McClure recommends that you search your name on Google, Spock, and Zoominfo to see what undesirable items are readily available for you to remove, such as embarrassing photos. You should also find old, inactive accounts and delete them.

If you find something truly damaging, you can send a request to the poster to remove the information. Both Spock and Zoominfo will update or delete personal information on request.

And in the future, be careful what you post online, whether it's a photo, a blog post, or even a public bookmark. All such items can be tied back to your online profiles and be easily seen, especially if you subscribe to a life-streaming application such as FriendFeed.

Grow Your Network

To help you quickly realize the benefits of social networking, most services will assist your network-building by scanning your contacts (via your uploaded contacts list or by logging into your Web mail account) to see who's already using the service. For those already on, you can easily invite them into your network.

The next step is usually to spam the rest of your contacts with an invite to join the social network--but think twice before you select that option. Not everyone you know will appreciate being spammed, and such messages tend not to generate many accepted invitations.

Other ways you can grow your network: Repeat your address-book scan periodically, not just because you add new contacts, but because people already in your contacts database will eventually join these services. Also, you can rewrite the generic greeting, "I'd like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn," with something a little more personal. It'll result in many more accepted invites.

After you've begun to grow a network on Facebook, you should check the "People You May Know" option on the front page to look for people with whom you may have friends in common. Repeat this step periodically, as the results will likely change every time you try it. LinkedIn has a similar "People you may know" option that scans for people you may have worked with.

Lastly, if you think someone you're inviting may not remember you, send a personal invitation explaining how you know each other. Don't rely on the blanket invite.

Once you're all set up, you should begin to get out in the real world and use both your social network's calendar and the listings in event sites like Upcoming and Workit to find events of interest to your business. Facebook will also help you find pertinent events with alerts on your feed about parties that many of your friends are attending.

Most people don't follow up when they exchange business cards. You should. Get through them quickly by purchasing a business card scanner--such as one from CardScan--that will import contacts straight into the contacts database you maintain in Outlook or other client. Write a follow-up note via traditional e-mail or through an invite on one of the social networks. Lastly, think like an e-mail marketer and set up or hold your e-mail messages to be sent the next morning (at 9:30 or 10, say) for the highest probability of being read.

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