Business Networking Online Can Advance Your Career

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But you don't need to attend countless meetings or go bar-hopping to be an effective networker. Just open your browser and surf to a social-networking Web site. In this virtual world, the improbable becomes possible: Social networks allow you to pull up a chair beside industry leaders.

There's a growing selection of sites: Friendster, LinkedIn, Ryze, Spoke, Tribe.net, ZeroDegrees and others. Visit them to gain a sense of what each has to offer. Some are more social than others. But nearly all count executives regularly profiled in the business press among their members. Moreover, human-resources executives and recruiters frequent these sites -- making them perfect places to network for a job. (Another social-networking group is Orkut, which is affiliated with Google. Joining this group requires an invitation, which sets it apart from the others.)

Social-networking sites are interesting and useful because they provide the technology to show that you actually do know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone you really want to know. In essence, LinkedIn, Spoke and other sites have programmed into their source code the algorithmic expression of six degrees of separation -- everyone in the world is connected by a chain of six people or fewer.

The technology is simple: After joining, you often can upload your contact database, which then is cross-indexed with every user's contact database to reveal Friend of a Friend (FOAF) connections. You simply look up someone you want to meet and chances are you can get an introduction through your FOAFs.

Job Hunting: Passive and Active

Even though a resume is the primary job-hunting tool, circulating it can make you seem needy or desperate. Social-networking sites allow you to write profiles describing your work experience, key specialties and career history. The profile serves as a resume without advertising that you're in the market for a job.

If you want to publicize you're on the job market, LinkedIn lets you make that clear. By checking boxes, you can indicate what kind of networking you're interested in, including "to find a job." However, recruiters worth their salt will approach you, even if you don't check the box, if your credentials are impressive and in demand.

Of course, the value of social- and business-networking sites isn't limited to job hunting. You can leverage contacts made on the sites for business deals or to secure venture capital and consulting assignments. You can stalk the competition and track products in the marketplace.

Care and Feeding of Contacts

However, it isn't what contacts can do for you; it's what you can do for contacts. The best way to use business-networking sites is to become as much of a rainmaker as possible. Offer to help fellow members whenever you can. The more favors you do for other users, the stronger your relationships with them will be. The deeper your relationship, the less your own requests will seem like impositions.

By using these Web sites, I've learned things about colleagues I otherwise wouldn't have known. In fact, I've gained a sort of X-ray vision because I've been able to peer into their "black books." This provides insight into their worlds and a better sense of them personally and professionally. I've discovered that my contacts know people I wouldn't have expected them to know. This kind of knowledge is power. I've uncovered mutual acquaintances and become more efficient about my networking by focusing exclusively on contacts who matter most to my business -- people heavily networked into the business elite.

In fact, Spoke takes contact management to a new level by installing software on your computer that monitors your e-mail correspondence with friends and colleagues and quantifies the strength of your relationships with them. Spoke then notifies you when it's time to fortify the connection with a friendly call or e-mail. Inviting a business entity to track communications this way does raise privacy concerns. However, if you decide the potential benefits outweigh the risks, the technology can help you stay better connected.

Etiquette of Virtual Networking

Even for experienced Internet users, social-networking sites pose etiquette quandaries. The first is whether you should belong to more than one. It's been worthwhile for me to join a half dozen. While some overlap exists, each offers opportunities to network with different sets of people. And I'm not the only multiple-joiner. A number of my business acquaintances belong to more than one group. But don't join more than one site at a time, or you may flood your business acquaintances' e-mail boxes with multiple requests to join each social network. Time your memberships so you invite colleagues to join you only one site at a time.

Another question is whether to endorse a colleague's work online, as LinkedIn allows. Endorsing a contact who isn't respected won't reflect well on you, so you may want to be cautious and praise only someone who's truly exceptional. It gets even trickier if a client or a boss asks you to endorse them.

How do you decline without offending him or her? There's no easy answer, although some sites help with those requests by providing several choices: accept the request, reject it, reject the request and say why, or not respond. I prefer the last option because I can say I was too busy or didn't see the request, which seems least offensive. However, a better approach might be to say you aren't comfortable endorsing or linking to someone. "I don't know you well enough" is a relatively inoffensive reason.

You will likely be asked to pass on the bulk of your messages and requests from other members to your more prominent contacts. Be selective about what you choose to relay or you may damage your standing with your influential friends.

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