Social Networking Helps You Find Solutions

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Manage the Flow of Information

Your next step should be to sign up with RSS feeds, so you can stay on top of hot industry issues and know when someone is talking about you. This is the key to discovering solutions for your business needs.

Using a service such as Google Reader, you should subscribe to some of the following feeds: 

  • The top five blogs you need to track for your industry.
  • For each site you manage, see who's Digging you.
  • Hot, time-sensitive discussions in the blogosphere--for your industry--on Techmeme, Megite, and Technorati.
  • FriendFeed, to track what individuals in your personal network are posting across a multitude of online media.
  • Status updates on Facebook.
  • A Twitter feed.

You also might want to set up Google Alerts to receive e-mails for mentions of hot industry terms and your company name in the mainstream news.

Naturally, this will generate an onslaught of information that will you have to sift through, and many users can get bogged down plowing through all that data at the expense of actually participating in any networks. Over time, you'll discover which of these feeds you need to follow and which ones you can delete.

Tools for Building Your Brand

To build your own personal brand online, you should keep in mind your objective of broadcasting your ability to provide answers to others' questions, and stay focused on providing value to your community. At first you'll be giving a lot more than you'll get back, but be unstinting, advises Chris Heuer, cofounder of The Conversation Group, a social media consultancy. Over time, your audience will acknowledge your contributions, and you'll see returns.

To start the process of contributing, begin by watching and listening to the conversation on Twitter using the Twhirl application. Twitter is an outbound communications tool that can quickly morph into a conversational tool not unlike IM. When someone asks a question, jump in and provide recommendations. If certain users start clogging up your feed with useless non-business-related information, don't hesitate to stop following them.

You can also incorporate tools you're already using outside of Facebook into your Facebook profile. For example, if you use FriendFeed, install the FriendFeed application. You can also cross-post your Tweets (Twitter updates) onto Facebook with the Twitter application.

To get into the groove of participating in conversation in the blogosphere, follow the 4-to-1 rule: Comment on four posts for every post that you write, recommends blogger Adam Metz, who offers social media strategies on his blog MetzMash. You can also build your industry expertise by answering questions on LinkedIn Answers.

While LinkedIn doesn't live and breathe on a daily basis like the rest of the suggested tools, it is a 100-percent business-oriented application. It is best used as a résumé substitute. Instead of forwarding a Microsoft Word document, forward your public LinkedIn profile.

To beef up your LinkedIn résumé, include at least one to three recommendations for each position in your profile. To get those much needed references, write recommendations of past managers and people you supervised, says McClure. If they're still good contacts, chances are they'll write a reciprocal recommendation for you.

Who Should You Network With?

Good networking isn't about seeing how many friends you can boast on your Facebook profile. It's about connecting to the right people and getting them to know about your products and services. Here are a few tips on how to find the top people in your industry.

Follow the hot lists, such as those put out by Crain's, Forbes, Fortune, and other business publications. These magazines always have lists of the top and up-and-coming executives. Scan the lists and see who's relevant in your industry, and then follow the content these executives create through Technorati searches, blogs, and Twitter. If you're very interested in having them recognize you, comment heavily on their posts and Tweets, and provide valuable information. Over time they'll recognize you as a contributor, and you'll be on their radar. When you're ready to approach them for something you really want, they'll be more receptive to your plea.

Sites such as Squidoo and About provide forums for people to showcase themselves as experts in almost any subject across all industries. You can create your own area of expertise on these sites, but it's best to begin by following the sites' self-professed experts. Talk to them directly. Find out who they're connected to and where they get their information. People love to share their daily media appetite.

You should also reach out to people who comment on your blog and follow you on Twitter. Those people are hot leads. Respond directly to them and ask them to tell a little about themselves and how they ended up commenting on your blog or following you on Twitter. If you sign up for a service like MyBlogLog, you can find other members who are reading your blog, even if they don't leave a comment. You can reach out to them as well.

Reach Out

The last rule of business social networking: Don't hesitate to introduce yourself to someone. Use LinkedIn to search your network for contacts at specific companies you're trying to reach. If you don't have an "in" but are dying to meet someone you've discovered, you should go ahead and reach out. While compliments always help, don't just send a fan letter; give them an engagement point to begin discussion. Tell them who you are, how you discovered them, and why you're interested in opening up a dialogue.

Over time, as you and your contacts scan one another's profiles, blogs, and Web sites--often in real time--dynamic opportunities are bound to arise. To realize online social networking's benefits, you'll have to find your own balance of scanning and broadcasting information. It's a comfort level that will likely change as your needs change over time.

David Spark is a freelance technology journalist who blogs at Spark Minute.

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