Ten Fundamental Steps for Online Career Networking

Jerome writes in with a common question:

I constantly read articles about how important it is to network online to help advance my career, but outside of emailing people I know in my field, I don’t really know where to start. Any advice?

Let’s start with the big question.

What is the point of doing online networking for your career? How is it any better than simply keeping in touch with people you know via email or at meetings? Isn’t stuff like LinkedIn or Facebook a waste of time, or at least not worth the time you invest in it?

Online networking tools serve two purposes, really.

First, they make it easy for people to find you – or at least find the information about you that you want to be found. Once you set up a proper profile at a social networking site, it’s often the first thing that shows up about you on search engines. Thus, when people go searching for information about you, you can have a lot of control over the information that they find.

Second, they allow you to keep tabs on other people – and allow other people to keep tabs on you. Let’s say, for example, that you’re starting a new project that might interest a lot of people in your field – and you might want input from some of them. Is it easier to collect all their email addresses then send a blanket email to all of them or to just simply update your online networking tool?

Similarly, if you’ve set up such tools properly, you can effortlessly and automatically follow such news and updates about others in your field, which can automatically alert you to any interesting changes without having to hope that that person remembered to send it to you.

Together, these things add up to tons and tons of opportunities to connect with people without having to invest a ton of time continually tracking people down.

Tactic #1: Just Use Google
One problem that many people have with doing this is that there seems to be a giant pile of services available for people to connect to others. Should I use Twitter? Should I use Facebook? Should I use LinkedIn?

Really, though, there’s only one you need to worry about. And that’s Google.

When people want to find other people online, they turn to Google. They type in that name, click on the first few links, and see what they can find out.

That means your focus shouldn’t be so much on which of these services to use. It should be to make sure you’re controlling that top search result on Google.

How can you do that? You need to have a page that’s (a) fully open to the public and (b) linked to by a lot of other people.

Based on what I’ve observed, for professional purposes, the best tool for that is LinkedIn, so if I were just getting started with things, I’d use LinkedIn. Facebook has more users, but it’s a “walled garden,” meaning the general public cannot read your profile. If you’re focusing solely on professional material, that’s actually a pretty big disadvantage.

Tactic #2: Detail Your Profile
When you sign up for such a service, the first step is to add appropriate detail to your profile. The key word here is appropriate.

The purpose for doing this is to attract professional connections, so keep it professional. Describe your career. Enter all of the relevant information and include as much detail as you can, including past places of employment, organizations you’re involved with (that you’d want to share professionally), where you went to school, and so on. Make especially sure to describe your current work (again, in as much detail as you can). Be sure to share it all publicly, too, so that you can easily be found on Google searches.

The more information you provide – particularly interesting information – the more likely it is that people will take an interest in you, follow you, and contact you for further connection, which is exactly what you want.

Tactic #3: Find People You Know (Or Want To Know)
Once you’re in place, start searching the site for people you know and establish connections with them. You may not know anyone – that’s fine – but if you can at least establish a few connections, you’re off on the right foot.

You might want to search whole companies, like your own, just to get a list of people, so you can quickly identify people that you may want to link up with. Don’t be afraid to connect with people above you in rank – or even below you – but focus on connecting to those that might actually have value in that connection. Don’t just connect for the sake of connecting or else you’ll suffer from needless overload.

Tactic #4: Invite Your Friends To Join
So, you signed up at LinkedIn (or whatever site you’ve chosen to use), filled in your profile, and located a few people you know. Now what?

These tools work better if you know lots of people using the tools, so email a bunch of your work contacts. Send them the URL of your LinkedIn page, along with perhaps the URLs of some other people most of them might be interested in, and encourage them to sign up. If people already know that they have at least a few connections in the bag, they’re much more likely to sign up for such a service.

Tactic #5: Keep People Reminded Through Other Means
Once you’re established there, make an effort to remind people through other mediums about your profile page, so they can follow you, too. I’d encourage you to stick a link to your profile in the signature of your emails as well as into the profile of any other online services you might use (like Facebook, for example).

What this does is it gives people many opportunities to visit your page and keep you in their mind – and that’s a pure benefit for you.

Tactic #6: Keep An Eye Out
Once you’ve established a profile and a lot of connections, it’s worth setting your basic page on the site as a bookmark so you can keep up with what’s happening with the people you’re connected to. I tend to look at what’s happening with my connections on various sites every other day or so, just to keep tabs with them.

For the most part, I don’t do anything with the updates – I just try to keep track of them. I usually send congratulations in response to big news and occasional follow-up questions, but I usually try to avoid too much follow-up (see #8 for why).

Tactic #7: Update Regularly
I also make an effort to update my own profile whenever there’s something significant to note. Whenever something happens that’s significant enough for me to wish to contact people professionally, I make sure to update any relevant social networking pages with a global update (so that everyone can see it and anyone who follows me or is connected is alerted to it).

Of course, there’s a fine line here – too much stuff can overburden the people connected to you. To mitigate that, I keep the update count down to the serious stuff – things that I would actually bother to contact others about, such as major project changes, changing jobs, the birth of a child, or another major event.

Tactic #8: Don’t Get Bogged Down
Ideally, you find yourself in a situation with a lot of connections, which means a lot of people are keeping tabs with what you’re doing. The danger in that is that it’s tempting to get involved in a lot of conversations – and that turns the social networking tool into an unproductive time suck.

My suggestion: avoid long conversations on the site. If you see something truly compelling, contact that person directly off the site. If it’s not compelling enough

Tactic #9: Add Value
There is one other reason I add updates to such social sites, and that’s when they add direct value to the people following me. If I find a truly great resource or piece of information that many others in my field will find valuable, I add an update letting others know about it.

Why do this? Why share something of value so easily? If you share truly valuable things, people will come to ascribe value to you – and that will stick in their minds. Do it regularly enough with stuff that’s truly valuable and people will share valuable things with you – information, important news, and so on.

Tactic #10: Follow Up
Most of these tactics don’t require much time, and so it can be easy to just put up the profile, check in every once in a while, and not think about it.

If you just do that, however, you may miss out on opportunity. Thus, I’d suggest two methods for regular follow-up on your profile.

First, set the site as a default page in your browser. This way, checking the page becomes part of your normal routine. You can often integrate a number of pages into a single iGoogle start page – that’s the tactic I use.

Second, check your own profile regularly and make sure it’s updated. Don’t let it slag with out-of-date information. Check it once a month or so and make sure that correct, current, and relevant information is easily found by people searching for you.

Follow these ten tactics and you’ll be using online networking to great career advantage.

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