The craft of online business networking

I recently had a friend text me to say she was looking for new employment, and wanted to know if I had any ideas.  I gave her my thoughts, mentioned some resources (I even dropped a name), and told her that she should network on LinkedIn and Facebook.  She told me that she was rarely, if ever, on LinkedIn, and the idea of using Facebook for professional networking had never occurred to her.

What she told me prompted me to write this article.

A couple of things that she said struck me.  First, despite the fact that she wanted to find new employment and was interested in getting connected, she almost never used LinkedIn.  Second, the idea of professional networking on Facebook never occurred to her.

I will mention that my friend in question is my age (we went to high school together) and is not as technically savvy as I am.  Although many people of my generation have largely embraced technology and social media, it’s not unusual or uncommon to find people who haven’t.  Nevertheless, in my position, I take using online communication for granted, so it surprised me that someone would not even think about using a tool such as LinkedIn or Facebook for her job search.

My thought was, Facebook is a highly popular application that connects large numbers of people.  How does someone not know to network through Facebook?  I’m not talking about how to network on Facebook, but rather just the simple fact that you can network on Facebook.

I should reiterate that I have personal experience with this; I got my current job through a Facebook contact.

I am a big believer that, in this day and age of social media, networking online is absolutely critical for surviving in today’s professional market.  A lot of business is conducted through email and text messages; indeed, applications such as Slack have become highly prevalent in business.  Even in one of my previous jobs, Skype was used extensively for work-related purposes.  I have even seen job applications that ask for your LinkedIn account, an indication that businesses take it seriously.

With the use of electronic media in business so prevalent, and with the popularity of social networks such as Facebook, it makes sense that online networking is critical for professional survival.

With that, here are some of my thoughts in regard to online networking.  This is not a comprehensive list; indeed, there may be a number of things I might be leaving out.  By all means, I encourage you to dig deeper into this (which you should be doing, anyway) and check out what others have to say about online networking.

One thing I should note: I talk mainly about LinkedIn, Facebook, and ‘blogs because those are the forums with which I am the most familiar.  This is not to discount other forms of social media (e.g. Google+, Twitter, etc.); if you use other platforms, then by all means, knock yourself out.

Online networking is still networking.  Think about what networking is.  It is a phenomenon where a person establishes a relationship — for purposes of this topic, a professional relationship — with another person.  Networking is a two-way street; the relationship is mutually beneficial to both parties.

When I was in college (which predates the internet — yes, I’m old!), we talked with people online using a system called the BITNET.  I actually made a number of friends by talking to them over BITNET; in fact, I am still friends with several of them to this day.

Networking online does not change the nature of what networking is.  Tools such as LinkedIn and Facebook are exactly that: tools.  They are used to facilitate networking, and if used properly, they can help foster and nurture those relationships.

Online networking expands your reach.  I maintain my Facebook account so I can keep family and friends in the loop as to what’s going on in my life.  Many of these people are located all around the country, and even around the world; I even have friends as far away as Sweden, Israel, and Pakistan.

I’ve written before about how involvement in local user groups is a good thing.  It is, but one limitation of it is geography; your reach goes as far as people live from the group site.  Online networking has no such limitation.  Maintaining an online presence means you can network with people anywhere.

Additionally, an online presence doesn’t just expand your network geographically; it can also expand it numerically as well.  Online networking ensures that you will be seen by more people than those with whom you would contact either face-to-face or over the phone.

Networking — whether it’s online or real life — takes time.  If you’ve been involved in some kind of relationship — whether it’s friendship, romantic, or professional — you know that it takes time to establish.

This is also the case with online (or any) networking.  Just because you’ve created a LinkedIn account and connected with, say, five different people does not mean you have an online networking presence.  Establishing a good network takes time — sometimes months, possibly even years.  If you’re looking for a job today, you can’t just start a LinkedIn account now, connect to a few people, and suddenly have an interview tomorrow.  It doesn’t work that way.  Networking is a long-term investment of time and effort.

You can join groups in Facebook and LinkedIn.  How many and what kinds of groups are you connected to on Facebook and LinkedIn?  Did it ever occur to you that those groups represent people who have similar interests to you?  This sounds familiar.  I think there’s a term for that.  I think it’s called…  let me think…  networking!

Online groups are not that different from physical user groups (okay, maybe you have to get your own coffee and snacks).  If you’re involved with an online group, you are already connected to a bunch of people who have the same interests that you do!

Network with people you know.  I get plenty of connect requests from people I don’t know.  Some of them are spam recruiters.  I make it clear on my LinkedIn summary that I only connect with people I know, and if they tell me how we’re connected or where we’ve met, then I’d be more likely to connect.  But if someone just sends me a request to connect, and I have no clue as to whom (s)he is, the request will likely end up in the trash.

Case in point: not long ago, someone who I didn’t know asked to connect.  However, he also included a note that he was the editor for the podcast I did a while back.  Ah, okay!  We have a connection!  I was happy to connect with him.

Remember, networking is a two-way street.  If someone connecting with you is looking to get something from you but is not willing to do anything in return, that is not networking; that is someone taking advantage of you.  If you don’t trust the other person, don’t connect with him or her.

Keep your information up-to-date.  You can pretty much keep your entire resume on LinkedIn (and Facebook as well, although it isn’t really used for that purpose).  I find it much easier to maintain my information and accomplishments on LinkedIn than I do constantly having to update my resume.  Additionally, when I do need to update my resume, I can use my LinkedIn information as a reference.

However, it’s not just a matter of your resume information.  It makes a good resource for my next point, which is…

What you know matters.  There is a reason why I maintain this ‘blog and include links to it on both my Facebook and LinkedIn.  I’m letting people know about what I think, what I’m learning, what I’m working on, and so on.  This is all stuff that (hopefully) is valuable to other people, not to mention that it looks good on a resume.

People can look at your LinkedIn profile and get an idea of what you know.  How often have recruiters found you by looking at your profile?  If you post what you know, it can help with connecting to other professionals.

Post about your accomplishments!  You just got a promotion because you figured out a complex problem!  You just got a full ride to Harvard!  You won your robotics competition!  Congratulations!  These are accomplishments that people like to hear about, and it’s possible that they might help land your next big thing.  Go ahead and post about them on LinkedIn, Facebook, or your ‘blog.  Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn!

The hive mind is a useful thing.  How many times have you posted on Facebook, “hey hive mind, I need your help on…”?  Did it ever occur to you that the same problem-solving tactic can be used professionally as well?  Your network is a source of knowledge.  It’s entirely possible that someone, somewhere, might have an answer to your problem.

How many times have to posted to a forum such as SQLServerCentral, 4GuysFromRolla, or StackOverflow looking for an answer to a problem?  You’re posting your issue to a wide audience, hoping that someone will have an answer.  An online network is useful in serving that purpose.

Above all, be yourself.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I shouldn’t try to be someone I’m not.  I’ve written before about how difficult it is to keep up with current trends.  Maybe it’s time to reinvent yourself.  Figure out who you are and stick with it.  Don’t waste your time trying to build up your online persona into someone you’re not.

Even online, etiquette matters.  People are more likely to networking with people they like.  Maintaining good etiquette goes a long way in accomplishing that.

There are some things you shouldn’t post online.  Do you really want the entire world, much less, professional contacts, to know all about the multi-keg drunk fest you had with your buddies?  What about the sordid details of the night that you had with the girl or guy you picked up the other night?  Granted, these are extreme examples, but nevertheless, there are some things I wouldn’t even want to share with my best friends, much less, business contacts.  This should be common sense, but it’s amazing (and not in a good way) how many people don’t think about this.

As I stated before, it’s entirely possible that your next manager or business contact could be one of your Facebook friends.  While it’s probably safe to post pictures of your vacation, your kids, or your cats, there are some things that you just shouldn’t post online.

While we’re on the subject of inappropriate things online…

There are pitfalls.  As much as I extol the virtues of online networking, it is not perfect, either.  Data security can be an issue.  There are spammers looking to scam you or make a fast buck.  People establish fake accounts for questionable purposes.  In this day and age of “fake” news, misinformation can spread like wildfire.

Despite the pitfalls that can come with online networking, they should not discourage you from establishing an online presence.  Used wisely and intelligently, online networking can enhance your career.

If you want to be more effective with professional networking, especially in this electronic interconnected age, you need to be able to do it online.  Making use of social media can go a long way in extending your networking reach.