A Newbie's Guide to Social Networks

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If you're thinking of signing up for Twitter or Facebook to give your company a competitive edge, what I'm about to say may surprise you. It's not strictly necessary to be involved in online networking to succeed in the business world. Don't get me wrong, social media tools are terrific arrows in your marketing quiver, but they aren't the right fit for every business model. Before you wade hip-deep into the social networking waters, make sure you need to be there in the first place.

No matter what marketing experts may tell you, it's not absolutely vital to set up an online presence on every social networking site out there. Frankly, doing so may end up hurting your company's bottom line instead of helping it. People often remark that managing your oline presence at sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are a giant time suck. Believe me, it's true. An entire morning can fly by while you're busy Tweeting, Plurking, denting, linking, and updating just to stay on top of things.

All too often I see companies plot ways to develop a "social media strategy" without ever asking why they need to be there in the first place, or what they'll accomplish once they arrive. One of the most interesting aspects of social media is that it's so new no one really knows all it's capable of doing, but that's not a license to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Plan carefully and develop your online presence only where it makes the most sense.

Here's where you need to start weighing your options and priorities. If you have a booming business as Scranton's top dog groomer, you really don't need to spend a lot of time connecting with animal lovers in Toledo. Of course, goofing off after hours on Dogster is a terrific way to keep in touch with your target demographic, but when it comes to drumming up business, you're better off networking at your local Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting.

On the other hand, some industries -- like consultants, freelancers, writers, and virtual assistants -- are a natural fit for online social networking. It helps you find referrals, generates word-of-mouth advertising, and lets potential clients check you out. Social networking puts a public face on your personal brand. Once you've established whether or not you need to be online, it's time to put together a plan of action.

A call to arms

There is no shortage of Web sites that want to help you get your social groove on and the first thing you want to do is track down ones where your colleagues congregate. Just about every profession out there has its own social networking niche, even some you might not expect. If you're in a more traditional line of work, then you're even more likely to find sites that are specific to your industry.

Web sites like LinkedIn or Toolbox.com are geared toward the working professional and are about as granular as you can get when it comes to networking. They not only promote one-on-one contact with colleagues over shotgun blast networking, it's virtually expected. Start small and pick only one or two industry-related sites to get you started.

Once you've met and connected with your peers, start dabbling in some of the broader online networks where you may meet potential clients or customers. Twitter and Facebook have the most name recognition (for now) as social media hotspots but don't discount sites like Ning or Tribe. These types of sites spawn smaller niche groups that are more focused and less overwhelming to learn, but still expose you to others outside your immediate professional circle.

Once you've registered with a some networking sites, ask a peer or colleague to introduce you to their online friends and followers. Some will reach out to welcome you and, before you know it, you'll slowly begin building your own network. Remember, you're not trying to reach every potential referrer or customer overnight.

For better or worse

A common question I hear often is whether certain social networking sites are "better" or more acceptable than others. Both are a matter of personal taste and also a bit industry-specific. For example, some social networkers don't consider MySpace as a particularly acceptable site to see and be seen. It used to be quite popular, but now it is often viewed primarily as a place for the teen set to gather. On the other hand, if you're looking to promote hip new music or a trendy clothing line, MySpace may be a perfect fit.

As for which networks are better, that depends on what you're looking to get out of being involved in them. If you want a fairly one-dimensional way to share industry-related information you find online, then a social bookmarking site like Delicious might be what you're after. If, on the other hand, you want to communicate with clients in real time, a micro-blogging site like Twitter is the way to go.

As you make your first foray into the world of online social networking, above all don't let it intimidate you. Although there are some best practices worth knowing, getting involved is just like going to a cocktail party. Start small, don't try to meet everyone all at once, focus on those you do meet, and let things unfold naturally. You'll be a networking leader in no time.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to give social networking sites a try? Let me know in the comments.

This story, "A Newbie's Guide to Social Networks" was originally published by Computerworld.

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