Monday, March 16, 2009

How do you choose which online networks to join and who joins you on them?

Every day I receive new invitations to either join or connect on different online (social) networks. Some of them are well known, such as LinkedIn or Facebook, others less so. The fact is that the numbers of social networking opportunities are continually growing, and it would be impossible for anyone to manage a network on all of them, unless that was their full time post!

This begs the question of which do you choose and with whom do you connect, where? I met with leading figures from three of the larger networks last week, LinkedIn, Xing and BT Tradespace. Each of them is looking for their own way to stand out from the crowd, to be different.

One of the most striking things for me is the number of people who, once they're connected with you on one network, want to connect with you everywhere else. If this is the right approach to networking, what do we need all of the different networks for. How do you use them differently? Or don't you bother?

In my mind I have different uses for each network.

Remember that networking is about both breadth and depth of relationship. Some networks are well suited to growing your network. For me, Ecademy is the main 'network growth tool' but Xing and BT Tradespace can also serve a similar purpose.

Other networks are better served helping you deepen your existing network. In my case, I see Facebook as a great tool to build existing relationships by opening the doors of my private life to strong business connections, and the doors of my business life to strong personal connections.

LinkedIn, in the meantime, is a great tool to leverage existing networks, and to help your connections gain your help and support when needed. Using their three degrees of seperation principle of looking at their connections and asking for introductions is incredibly powerful, if done professionally and with focus.

The problem lies in the way these depth networks are diluted by mass connections. I can't put my hand on my heart and say that my LinkedIn or Facebook networks contain only people I know well, I have accepted too many connection requests for the want of somewhere else to connect for that to be the case. Quite how 'LinkedIn Open Networkers', who have thousands of connections can make trusted introductions I just don't understand.

I have realised that the time has come for me to rationalise my online networks and start to connect with different people in different places for different reasons. It will take me some time and I want to do so in a way that won't cause offence to people I move or spurn, but it needs to be done if these networks are going to achieve anything like their potential for me.

I know that there will be many who disagree with this approach, and others who are even more confused than I am. I'd love to hear all views, and some other strategies.

It's time to create some sense from the confusion.


  1. Andy,

    I agree with you.

    You have to separate networks according to their purposes. I also agree that there is no point in having thousands of contacts if there is no use in that.

    I had the chance to grow quite a substantial network on Linkedin and I am 100% sure of the use I want to make out of it.

    For me it is an opportunity to get to know interesting people and to help whenever I can.

    For powerful networking, I use twitter which to me is the most personal and relevant tool out there.

    As a rule of thumb I do not add people on any network unless I have not met them personally or I am really interested in what they do.

    On the other hand if others want to follow or add me to their network, I don't see any reason why I shouldn't allow them to do so.

    If Linkedin had a Followers/Following distinction a la twitter, you'd notice I interact with 200 to 300 people (which I would hypothetically follow back), and most of my connections come from managing a group (which I grow with my time and dedication) to 7300 members.

    I think I am in fact one of the few Linkediners with more than 10K+ connections and still invites to send.

    Therefore I completely agree that one should really understand how to use a social networking tool, but my point is also not to focus on traditional uses of the tools as a creative approach is always welcomed.

    Great Post

  2. Anonymous11:45 pm

    Julius, you've got an enormous network on Linked in and you're "100% sure of the use" you want to make of that - to get to know interesting people and to help whenever you can. With more than ten thousand connections is that really possible?

    Does your rule of thumb (not adding people unless you have bet them personally or are really interested in what they do) apply to Linked In as well?

    I'd be genuinely grateful for answers here, as I'm sure I'm not using Linked in to anything like full advantage.



  3. Hi Doug,

    thanks for your comment, I'll try to be relevant with my answer.

    Both of the points you raised apply to LinkedIn.

    I know what I can get out of having almost 11K connections on Linkedin. I am not aiming to develop one to one relationships (although that happens occasionally and got 2 clients in the last six months this way)or to strongly recommend people I haven't met.

    I got to know a lot of events professionals thanks to the group I manage, which is the largest group online of this kind.

    I also found the time to introduce people that ask me to be in touch with potential clients. I do that with strangers at networking nights and I don't see any problem with that. Of course it depends on the nature of the request. I do not push through any request I won't be happy to receive myself.

    As for your second point, I do not invite people to my network anymore on LinkedIn, unless we haven't met offline or we got to know each other on other platforms.

    If you want to make the best use of Linkedin or Xing, my suggestion is to join groups, start meaningful conversations and be open to connect with those people that want to connect with you.

    What I learned is that you will never know where your next opportunity is going to come from, so keep a quality approach with an open mind.

    Thanks Andy for the chance to expand on this topic.


  4. Thanks for your comments guys.

    Julius, another question for you, getting back to the core of my original query.

    Which other online networks are you a member of? I know, for example, that you are a member of Xing.

    How do you differentiate your behaviour on each of the networks? How do you decide which to commit your time to?

    And do you accept some connections on one network but not on another?

  5. Andy,

    I currently use LinkedIn, Xing, Facebook and twitter.

    Linkedin is my core. I already talked on how I use it. I dedicated at least 30 minutes a day to manage the Event Planning & Management Group there. A bit more if I need to start or reply to discussions.

    Xing is where I am investing for the future. It is great for networking (haves and needs section is great)and it is very European based. A limit of Linkedin is that it is US based and that does not convert in business most of the times. I spend 15 mins a day going through messages and checking who's seen my profile.

    Facebook I am not fond of, but I use should there be the need of it. I try to redirect whatever comes this way to other networks.

    twitter is for my pr/media and recently events connections. I spend up to a couple of hours pushing content and generating relationships with interesting people and potential clients.

    I also developed networking events through twitter, and I can see it as the potential networking tool of the future.

    You have to think that I work with these tools as well so make sure you understand where I am coming from.


  6. Andy,
    thanks for a great post. I would go one step further and (as objectively as possible) postulate that with the rise of social networks we are seeing the digital reflection of physical social networks that have existed throughtout history. There will always be a place for an additional social network, with a different culture, a different purpose, different incentives. We all belong to Clubs, to Organisations, to Industry Groups, Professional Associations, etc. in the physical world. And this will be increasingly true online. The average person will be part of several social networks. More than perhaps the two or three we use today.
    This is how the online world is evolving. The larger social networks like Facebook, XING, LinkedIn, have also created specific cultures and values for the users, that are distinct from each other.
    When it comes to a broad separation of ones daily life, like between ones private and business lives, we begin to see distinctly different values introduced by the bigger networks. Facebook is widely seen as an all emcompassing network for mostly private purposes, though many working in music and youth culture can also be found using Facebook for business purposes. XING is widely perceived as a very serious strictly business platform for Europeans and Companies around the globe, networking offline and online, organizing events, engaging in Group discussions,etc. LinkedIn is perceived as very US-centric, business and job platform, less international and strongly oriented around jobs and recruiters.
    And just as in the world of physical social networks, we will each need several online networks to maximize the potential for our individual success. And in both worlds, the bottom line is quality over quantity, in order to establish a real, credible, sincere, professional, and above all trusted persona in the online world, as a mirror and extension of your real and physical persona.

    Jackson Bond
    Senior Manager, Corporate Development

  7. An interesting article - thank you.

    The future for a lot of people lies very much within niche social networks, which ultimately will have far greater appeal for people within specific jobs or professions. Such niche networks are allowing people to interact and engage with each other at a much more meaningful level. What’s more, suppliers to specific professions can use niche networks to target their communications very much more accurately.

    Financial services is a good example of niche online social networks in action. IFA Life for example is a financial social network where financial planners and wealth managers can network with each other, share best practice and debate industry issues etc online. Consumers also use IFA Life to find a financial planner in their area.


    Thanks again.

    Philip Calvert
    Sales and Online Communication Skills Speaker

  8. @This begs the question of which do you choose and with whom do you connect, where?

    If you start from the premise that networking is about building trusted relationships where you get to know, like, trust & help people achieve their goals then over time you will develop a number of quality relationships. The people you can help are the ones with whom you connect as it is likely that if you can help them then they can help you achieve your goals. These trusted relationships require some maintenance & regular communication. You also need to meet a larger number of people in order to develop these ‘quality’ relationships. You will not like & get to know everyone!

    Social Networking platforms do 2 things very well in my view. They provide a feed of new connections into your offline world and they help you to keep in touch with those in your offline network. The answer to which you choose is to find where your ideal contacts and existing network are participating and join in and contribute in those networks.

  9. I entirely agree with your basic premise Andy. If I have a good connection and interaction with contacts on one network I may or may not need to connect with them on another network.

    What I don't do is to invite my contacts from one network to join another one and to connect with me (again) there. I might do that if, after a while i have concluded that the new one is better than the 'old' one - for me and possibly for my contacts.

    I quite like those networks that allow you to speak to a greater number of people than you might otherwise be able to do so if you limit yourself to just those you know personally. After all that wider group may themselves know other people who could be interested in your services or products, and they could recommend others to engage with you - even if you don't know them personally.

    As with all things you need a strategy and you need to identify who is your target audience for your online networking activity. You could have different audiences on different networks.

  10. Julian Woodward6:44 am

    Going back to Andy's original question ...

    If you're talking about "social networks", then Facebook is far and away the king of them all (for now and I suspect for a few years to come). 175 million users and growing fast. But that's because it's a social network, not a business social network, so it has a much broader appeal than things like LinkedIn, Xing and Ecademy.

    My personal Facebook rule is if I would
    a) say hello to you in the street, and
    b) not regret having to do so
    then we'll be "friends" on Facebook. So for me its mostly about continuing real-world relationships/friendships/acquiantences using the technology, rather than about 'meeting' new people. There are exceptions where I will 'friend' somebody because I know them by reputation, even though we've not met - but those are maybe 2% of the Facebook contacts I have.

    Most of this discussion, however, has been about business social networks, and in that arena as far as I can see LinkedIn is the most important. Yes, there are lots of others, and yes some of them probably do things better/faster/sweeter than LinkedIn. But unless you're a professional networker my advice would be to stick to one or two, because your time is limited and the people you meet elsewhere will probably be on LinkedIn too.

    On LinkedIn I'm happier to connect with people I don't actually know, although generally would still want to know 'of' them. Others clearly differ, but I see no value in having a list of contact details for thousands of people I've never met: if that's what you want there are telephone directories that are much more comprehensive!

    Another type of network is that which is aimed at a very narrow niche, where they might attract people who want to interact/network within a particular community but are not interested in 'business networking' with the world at large. If that niche is your peer group or your target market or your potential route to market, then networking there makes sense too - although it requires a lot of subtlely to avoid coming across as the 'cuckoo in the nest'.

    As a side question: with the online networks in which you don't actively participate, do you think it's better to be not there at all, or to be there with a (possibly stale) profile so that at least others can contact you if they want to. Thoughts?

  11. Let us begin by taking as general principle that we all network, belong to at least one network and at some point or other our own network presence is called into task by the more or less repetitive processes of networking – not necessarily accompanied by a known and already established friendship, but a moment of social introduction. A moment that is often spontaneous and ‘of the moment’.

    If we accept this as a general outline of social negotiations, we are immediately met with anecdotes and occasions as they arise in our everyday lives. Take, for example, more formal networking events such as Paul Walsh and Co’s Open Soho – it is a given principle of the occasion that individuals are there to congregate, chat, communicate and, or course, engage in the practice of swapping business cards and/or related details. Andy what your post brings to light are the various dilemmas, pitfalls and social graces that one must be aware in efforts to establish and manage our connections with others.

    From the reading of the other commentary to this blog post it is clear that, person-to-person, we share an awareness of the types of connections that are sought through particular networks. From a personal perspective I had thought that I had this arrangement ‘cracked’ by the management of ‘work’ connections via LinkedIn, personal (we had met in-person and shared more than a pint in the pub) relationships via Facebook, and then there was Twitter… This social management – such as it was – was followed in 2005, Facebook’s first year as an international platform for social connections, still university based and (convenitently) the site for my PhD research. LinkedIn was occupied (in very small part) by introductions to other ‘academics’ (mostly in the States) whose invitations ‘to join their network’ prompted me to join and to accept other invitations. Since there has been a shaking up of Web 2.0, where the patterns of connections do not fall so easily. Increasingly – especially after Facebook was ‘opened to everyone’ in 2006 – connections from friends, work and play were shared across what I had set-up as a personal network for ‘close contacts’. LinkedIn also gained momentum amongst my UK friends and colleagues. Then came the shared third party platform on Facebook, and we’ve fallen down the metaphorical networking rabbit hole. This means that we all appear everywhere; Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter (since 2006); YouTube; Flickr… And so on…

    The above anectdote shows how there may be a divergence between those networks created by individuals ‘before’ the SNSs boom (pre 2006 and Facebook’s open access) and ‘after’ the SNSs boom exploded into the main. Just as increasing numbers of individuals sign up to SNSs the verb to ‘network’ is also undergoing change. Once it would have been ‘out of the ordinary’, perhaps even considered ‘discourteous’ to introduce people via Facebook because they share an interest. This has happened to me on numerous occasions. I too have offered inroductions myself. My connection to Andy and why I am commenting on his post is the effect of one such introduction via a mutual friend. We may not have met, but we share in common that particular friend AND an interest in social media and related resources.

    Will we ever ‘neatly’ be able to compose and separate out networks of ‘friends’, ‘work’, ‘family’? – all SNS are ‘fit for purpose’ the efforts of the individual to build and create a particular network, indicate particular purpose and intended interactions – who could predict Facebook’s (and other’s) ‘clever’ integration, attachment and sharing of SNS information across sites. In short the answer is this; social networks are increasingly complex. It is only after we begin to sift through our contacts that we have insight into the shape and purpose of connections. Connections that are constantly being updated and prone to shift. Perhaps we can only provide insights such as Andy’s when we have already a set of connections, from which social courtesy demands we have a set of related principles. Maybe someone should write a blog about such potentialities. They could call it…

    Excellent post Andy, really enjoyed 'thinking' and writing about this...