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Mind Your P’s & Q’s

Tuesday, November 23, 2010
The Secrets Of Online Networking Etiquette

By Kim O’Connor

Networking is no longer just a matter of shaking hands and exchanging business cards. Some of today’s most effective networking platforms don’t even require that you leave your desk. Increasingly, people are building business networks by putting in more face time with their computers than with their colleagues and contacts.

Sounds easy, right?

Yet online networking is unfamiliar territory for many people—even long-time users. And not knowing how to approach people online can tarnish your image by suggesting that you’re out of touch, rude or even incompetent.

Part of the reason the new networking etiquette remains a mystery to so many is that it became hugely important almost overnight. Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook—three of the most popular online networking services—are young, but they’re giants. Twitter has an estimated 10 to 15 million active users. LinkedIn boasts more than 70 million members. And Facebook has attracted more than 400 million users. For many people, these websites have become an everyday part their professional and personal lives.

Liz Ryan, an expert on the modern workplace and a former Fortune 500 human resources executive, believes that tools like Twitter and LinkedIn are not only vital for networking, but also for keeping a finger on the pulse of any given industry.

“Anybody who thinks about networking as strictly a face-to-face affair is definitely behind the curve,” she says. “They’re missing out—not just on reaching out to people, but on knowing what’s happening in the ecosystems they operate in.”

They’re also missing out on opportunities.

Mark Granovetter, a sociologist at Stanford University who studies social networks, breaks down networks into two types of connections: strong ties (close friends and family) and weak ties (acquaintances). He believes the weak ties are your best bet for professional mobility because acquaintances, by definition, move in different circles, which makes them gold mines of valuable outside information.

Online networks make the most of those weak ties by keeping us informed about what’s happening in the lives of people we don’t necessarily talk to often. Likewise, these websites keep us on our acquaintances’ radars. So if you run a catering business, for example, and your acquaintance is having a party, she is much more likely to think of you as a potential vendor if the two of you are socially networked online. And she can reach out to you with a few clicks instead of digging for your contact information.

The problem is that while platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook are powerful tools, that power can cut both ways. Missteps and mistakes can harm your business. These guidelines will help you mind your manners as you build your professional networks.

Know The Platforms


Understanding the ways that different networking platforms work will help you avoid faux pas as you connect with people online.

Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter each have fundamentally different purposes and tenors. Make sure your tone aligns with the platform you’re using so you don’t seem stiff or overly familiar, which can be perceived as inappropriate.

Facebook is more of a social creature. It’s for friends, acquaintances and co-workers who want to connect on a personal level.

LinkedIn is a little more formal. It links professionals that have had working relationships and helps them find connections between close contacts (the people they know) and wish-list contacts (strangers they would like to know).

Twitter is the least intimate networking platform in the sense that you don’t need permission to connect with anyone. On Twitter, users follow one another, choosing to read the tweets of associates and strangers for any number of reasons, including real-world relationships, shared interests or locality. Unlike Facebook and LinkedIn, Twitter relationships don’t necessarily go both ways; just because you follow someone doesn’t mean that person will follow you.

Learn To Navigate

All three networking platforms attract users by making it easy to get started. Make sure you take the time to orient yourself to whichever website you’re using.

Some people begin searching for contacts before they even complete their profiles. A skeletal profile projects an unprofessional image. It can suggest that you’re noncommittal or inexperienced. It also goes against the spirit of networking, which is to keep other people up to date on what you’re doing and what you’ve done. Be sure to set up your online profiles with the same critical eye you turn toward other vital business tools.

You should also take a few minutes to learn how to navigate the website. Each online networking platform offers different features and tools. Learn what they are and study how people use them. Savvy users are more efficient and more likely to use the site to its full potential.

Cultivate Relationships

People’s views vary regarding how well you need to know someone before you connect on Facebook or LinkedIn. Some people screen carefully, accepting and offering invitations only to people they know well. Less discerning users pad their networks with people they barely know—or even strangers.

Instead of playing the numbers game, focus your energy on building relationships.

“At a networking event, you would not walk into that room and hand your business card to every single person,” says Barbara Lopez, a networking expert and president of Brightfarm Introductions, a personal-branding consulting firm in Gold River, Calif. “I really believe it’s about quality over quantity.”

Keep in mind that the people you associate with can influence your reputation. And try to indirectly approach people you don’t know instead of sending an invitation to connect; many people find random requests from strangers confusing or irritating.

LinkedIn offers channels for contacting people you don’t know well enough to link with directly. Exchanging a few casual tweets via Twitter can also be an effective icebreaker that might lead to a more substantial relationship.

Don’t Be Self-Centered

Approach all of your networking activities with a spirit of reciprocity, so that you give as often as you take.
Networking expert Lopez recommends an interactive approach by promoting other people’s efforts and commenting on their posts.

“People need to spend time looking at what they can do for their network rather than thinking about what they can get from their network,” she says.

Offer information, advice and encouragement freely and often.

Talk Like A Human

Aim for a natural tone by keeping things conversational.

For your profile, workplace expert Ryan recommends introducing yourself into a recording device (your computer or cell phone might work) and transcribing your words. You can always refine your description later, but the exercise should help establish the right tone.

Once you’ve found your human voice, use it across your online personas.

“Be consistent so that if someone comes across your Twitter page, your blog and your LinkedIn profile, your voice always sounds the same,” Lopez says. “That will give them a sense of who you are, the way you speak, and what you have to offer.”

Be Substantive

Make sure you actually have something to say before you blast it over your entire network. This is especially true on Twitter, a platform where content is king.

“Pressure to publish is not the reason Twitter exists,” Ryan says. “When you feel pressure to tweet, you run the risk of saying, ‘I put regular cream cheese on one-half of my bagel and strawberry cream cheese on the other half.’ If the stuff you post is high quality, no one is going to worry about the frequency.”

A good rule of thumb is that your material should be thought provoking. Better yet, make it useful. Lopez recommends sharing short tips that demonstrate your professional expertise.

“Provide value to your network so that they are receiving something and perceiving you as an industry leader,” she says. “You don’t want people to tune you out because they’re not receiving anything of value.”

Avoid Shameless Self-Promotion

People can smell spam a mile away. And just like an e-mail program, they can filter it out. If you abuse your network with obnoxious quasi-advertisements, you’ll end up in your contacts’ mental equivalent of a junk folder.

“You wouldn’t just walk into a room and shout, ‘I’m having a promotion right now!’” Lopez points out. “When you just throw something at someone, that’s when it starts to sound like spam.”

Put promotional posts into context for your network by finding a way to make them relevant to people’s interests and concerns.

Another strategy is to pretend you’re always writing to a close friend.

“There’s a big difference between treating your network as an audience—passive recipients of a broadcast-type message—or treating them as a volume-based way to do one-to-one communications,” Ryan says.

Her advice?

Consider every aspect of your social networking existence from someone else’s point of view.


Kim O’Connor
, a Chicago-based freelancer, often writes about social media.

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