Get the Most Out of Social Networking Sites

The Internet has changed the way we relate to each other, as business partners, as clients, as friends, as family, even as lovers. Not only has it become easier to stay in touch with people we already know, it has become easier to find and connect with people we’ve never met before — and might not ever meet at all!

Whether you’re looking for new customers, a new audience, a new business partner, a new vendor, new friends, or a new one night stand, you can maximize your use of the Internet and the wave of social networking sites that have cropped up to help us connect. Doing even a few of these things will set you apart from the vast majority of people who view social network sites as toys and networking as “just for fun” (though it can be fun, too).

  1. Have a clear purpose: Know what you’re using a social networking site for. While it’s ok to have a profile somewhere that’s just for “hanging out”, you need to know that hanging out is its purpose. If you are using a social networking site to try to build an audience, connect with other professionals, or meet your next wife, it should be focused on achieving that end. Don’t muddy the waters by trying to advertise your dog-walking service, pick up dates for the weekend, post pictures of the company picnic, and build an audience for your homebrew science fiction video series.
  2. Complete your profile: You’d be surprised how many people never do this. Yet it’s the first thing people want to know about you. Most people check all the boxes (I’m a Virgo, in a relationship… done!) but don’t do much with the real “meat” of their profile, the About Me section. Put some thought into what you want people to know about you and why people should care.
  3. Don’t follow the leader: It can be tempting to sit back and wait for people to contact you, for people to leave comments, for people to suggest installing some new application — rousing yourself only to respond to whatever prompts come your way. Take the initiative and add people, select a handful of apps you like and stick with them, and update on a semi-regular basis (or a regular basis; schedule 30 minutes a week to update your profile, if it’s an important part of your public image).
  4. Accept everyone: There are two schools of thought on this: create an inner circle of close colleagues, comrades, or companions; or create a huge body of followers, fans, or ex-girl- and boyfriends. I fall into the second camp — anyone who has taken the effort to “friend” me gets added. Those are the people who are willing to invest their attention in what you’re doing, who have given you permission to “broadcast” your life to them. Welcome them.
  5. Add everyone you know, no matter how little: Most services these days will scan your address book and tell you if there’s anyone you might already know onboard. Some will also recommend people a on people you already know, places you’ve worked, or interests you’ve highlighted. (LinkedIn is scarily good at this!) If you come across someone you actually know in “real life”, no matter how distantly, add them. That is, after all, the point of social networking — to leverage the often-invisible connections that exist between us and other people. The worst that can happen is that they say “no” — this has never happened to me.
  6. Pick one or two networks and work them: It can be tempting to sign up for dozens of social networking sites, especially when different contacts turn up on different sites. But it’s nearly impossible to make use of a dozen different sites, unless you figure out how to make a career of it. Instead, pick one or two sites and focus all your energies on creating useful, meaningful connections there.
  7. Send messages: Find a reason to connect with the people in your network, and send them a message once in a while. Since the main point of this is to keep a channel of communication open, it doesn’t have to be profound — a “happy birthday” is good, if the site reveals birthdays. Don’t, though, make it all about you — that is, don’t post a message to everyone in your list every time you update a picture, go to work, or leave your house. (You laugh — I’ve had friends that did this!)
  8. Have something to say: Let people know why you’re there, what your purpose is, and what makes you, you. Give people a reason to pay attention to you. Although most people in your circle will stay in your circle indefinitely if you don’t do anything at all, having connections because they’ve forgotten you’re there is hardly the best use of a social network! Post something to your front page, blog, wall, or whatever it is every now and then, so that people learn something about you.
  9. Avoid clutter: Remember when MySpace pages were awful and Facebook pages were clean and simple. No more — now it takes about 8 minutes for your profile anywhere to get covered with junk. If your page is so full of junk that nobody can tell anything important about you, you might as well not have a page. Limit yourself to only 3 or 4 extras, and either stick with the default theme or try to find one that’s clean and simple.
  10. Firewall your personal with business lives: This might not apply to everyone, but for most people, once you’ve decided to use a social networking site for business purposes, don’t use it at all for non-business communication — and vice versa. Remember that the story about you, the goat, and the magnum of champagne is going out to everyone you’ve allowed to see your profile. That’s not something you want to share with potential business partners. If necessary, create two profiles on the same site, one for your business persona, the other for your personal life; instead of denying friend requests from friends and family, you can just refer them to the other profile.

Social networking sites have a reputation as being huge time wasters, and for most people, they are. If you can afford that luxury, more power to you; for the rest of you, really think about what social networking can do for you and focus your energies to making that work.

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