How to Use Social Media to Build a Professional Network Online

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Last night, I had the opportunity to give a presentation to a fantastic group of people in the Youngstown chapter of APICS. Of course, I spoke about one of my favorite subjects and the subject about which I quite possibly have the greatest expertise: social media. Now, if you know what APICS is, then you are probably wondering why people in that association would be at all interested in social media. APICS is an acronym for “The American Production and Inventory Control Society,” and the organization calls itself, “The Association for Operations Management.” The people I spoke to were in purchasing, production management, inventory control, and so on. Why would they care about social media? That is a very important question, because it gets right at the heart of what I believe is one of the most common misconceptions about social media…

The bottom line is this: SOCIAL MEDIA IS NOT JUST ABOUT MARKETING.

I recently left a comment on a blog post by Mark W. Schaefer about the issues revolving around the ROI of social media. I think it makes perfect sense to track ROI of social media marketing efforts in as much as it is feasible, but the problem is that not all uses of social media have to do with marketing. There are other functions (i.e. customer service) of which we neglect to measure the ROI when using other platforms. Why would we measure them using social media? I summed up my comment in the following conclusion:

I think the main problem is this: we need to disentangle the terms “social media” and “marketing.” Social media is a method of communication. Can it be used for marketing? Sure. So can the telephone. But none of us judges the effectiveness of the telephone based on how well telemarketing works.

Social media is a tool that can be used for a variety of business functions, including but not limited to:

  1. Marketing: reaching potential customers.
  2. Customer Service: serving current customers.
  3. Sales: acquiring potential customers.
  4. Public Relations: monitoring brand and industry mentions.
  5. Professional Networking: meeting people and making professional contacts.

Using Social Media for Networking

There’s a reason there’s that alternate term: social networking. Because, at its most fundamental level, that’s what digital social platforms are for: building relationships. It seems we’ve forgotten that rudimentary benefit, though. It seems we’ve forgotten how to just meet people online. It seems that marketing departments have hijacked the platforms, with “Like us on Facebook” at the end of every commercial and “Follow Us on Twitter” on the back of every cereal box.

I think it’s time we got back to our roots with social media. By far, the most potent benefit of using social platforms is developing a professional network. It can help you in getting a job, should you become dislocated. It can help you in building strategic relationships with suppliers. It can help you add the next employee to your team. The web is full of brilliant people out there who share your interests, skills, and industry. They are waiting for you to connect with them. Here’s how to do it from scratch:

8 Steps to Building a Professional Network Online

  1. Start a blog. Write about your area of expertise. Start off using a free blog at wordpress.com, and then migrate to your own custom domain later using wordpress.org. Blogging gives people that you meant content with which they can interact, helping them get to know you better as a professional. Also, it gives them something of yours to pass on to their connections.
  2. Comment on other blogs. Google search for other blogs in your industry using a search term like “blogs about (my industry).” Then, add blogs to your Google Reader so that you are informed whenever new posts are published on those sites. Take time to read the blogs and leave thoughtful comments, having dialogues with the bloggers about their writing.
  3. Join blogging communities. As you comment more frequently on more and more blogs, you will begin to build a network of people who are engaged in and intelligent enough about your industry to put their thoughts on it into writing. Use a platform like Triberr (okay, just use Triberr, because I don’t know of any other platform like it) to more efficiently share one another’s content with one another’s other connections.
  4. Participate on Twitter. Twitter is the optimum platform for starting relationships, because it is an open network. You don’t have to be connected with anyone on Twitter to interact with them. I recommend starting your Twitter network from people you’ve met in the blogosphere and growing it by following people that they follow. You can also do searches, participate in Tweet chats, and a number of other things to meet people on Twitter. But, almost without exception, Twitter is where digital networking begins.
  5. Build your LinkedIn. First, make sure your profile is complete (including an image). Then, bring in connections that you’ve made on Twitter and through blogosphere to LinkedIn. Meet other people on LinkedIn by participating in groups. Remember, LinkedIn is a platform distinctly for the purpose of professional networking, so keep it classy.
  6. Bring connections to Facebook. Some people want to keep their Facebook accounts separate from business. If that’s you, ignore this suggestion. But Facebook can be a great tool in developing deeper, more meaningful relationships with professional connections. Only bring people to Facebook that you can really see yourself being friends with. Facebook offers user-friendly functions like “groups” and “events,” in which communities can easily be built and fostered.
  7. Video chat with Google Plus or Skype. Get to know the connections you’ve already built in a more three-dimensional way. For one on one conversations, you can use Skype. It’s free and very intuitive. For group discussions, you can use Google Plus Hangouts to have conversations with up to 10 people at a time. Is your community dispersed across the globe? No problem. Have a conversation with the entire group without leaving your office.
  8. Attend meet-ups. This is the end-game. If you develop thousands of digital connections and never come in contact with a real, flesh-and-blood human being, then you’ve wasted your time. Obviously, you won’t be able to meet everyone. But the more you can get together in person, the better. Attend events. Attend conferences. Organize simple, down-to-earth group meetings or one-on-one coffee conversations. Get out from behind the screen. That’s where the real relationships blossom.

8 Simple Rules for Dating Your Digital Connections

As you build these networks, you’ll want to practice good etiquette in meeting people and fostering relationships. Here are eight simple tips on how to do that:

  1. Clearly identify yourself. Don’t hide. Let people know who you are. For example, use an image in every profile on every platform.
  2. Respect your boundaries. Don’t be too creepy when trying to connect with strangers. For example, don’t request a connection on Facebook or LinkedIn unless the person knows who you are.
  3. Be polite. Don’t be a troll. Don’t be rude. Be respectful. For example, don’t leave comments just to start arguments.
  4. Don’t try to sell anything. You’re here to meet people; not to make money. If a business conversation happens to develop, take it into a private setting (message inbox, email, etc.).
  5. Always read before you respond. Don’t make assumptions about the content based on headlines. Don’t respond just to make people think you’re interested. Always read first. For example, if there is a Tweet with a link attached to it, follow the link and view the content before you reply to the Tweet.
  6. Give proper attribution. Give people credit when you share their posts, images, or even ideas. For example, if you use an image on your blog, state who created it and provide a link to its original source.
  7. Constantly express your gratitude. The most important phrase you can learn in social media is, “Thank you.” You cannot say “thanks” enough. Thank people for useful information, for insightful ideas, and especially for sharing your work. For example, when people Retweet your content on Twitter, reply back with a “Thanks for the RT!”
  8. Make all of your contributions valuable. Never feel as if you need to post something just to have posted it. Silence is better than empty drivel. Be thoughtful with the content you publish. For example, never publish a blog post just because you haven’t published one in a while. Always have a good reason.

If you don’t want to try to remember a gazillion rules, the basic principle for building relationships online is the same as it is for building relationships in person (or anything else for that matter): don’t be stupid. Be respectful. Be nice. Make it about the other person, not about you. You’re dealing with people, not avatars. Treat people the way you would want to be treated. Advice just doesn’t get much better than that.

2 comments
EugeneMcEvoy
EugeneMcEvoy

My daughter is third year, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. This site has been sent to her since it's exactly what she is studying now. I hope she shares this info. with other students. Since I'm new to the field this is exactly what I need for expanding my networking. 

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