Monday, April 06, 2009

CONNECTING IS NOT ENOUGH: Will you be my Friend?

This article originally appeared in The National Networker

Have you experienced that strange sensation recently? A feeling of importance, of celebrity, of previously unmatched popularity. It’s the feeling that the lucky kids at school all understood but that the rest of us could only dream of.

All of a sudden everyone wants to be your friend.

From Facebook to LinkedIn, from Plaxo to Fastpitch and from Xing to Friendster, people are asking to be friends. And they’re not just people we know, have met or who share mutual friends. They are people from all over the World, with varied backgrounds and different interests. Yet they all want to be our friends and share in our lives.

Do you embrace each and every one of these new-found friends? Or do you find something uncomfortable and disconcerting about all of these requests from strangers?

Once you have befriended them, your popularity knows no-bounds. They want to follow you to every party you go to, and want to invite you to the ones they’re attending. All of a sudden you are a member of countless social networks…….and your network is the same on each one!

There are many people who embrace this method of networking. They believe that the more people you connect with, the broader your network, the more successful you are. For the more extreme, they count success in terms of ‘notches on the bedpost’. Others do take a more level-headed approach, recognizing that they do need to interact with many of these new ‘friends’ but that there is value in broadcasting to everyone else they are connected to. Not so much networking as marketing.

It might not surprise you that I favour a different approach to my online networking. My approach takes three stages, each one making it far easier to manage my time on each network effectively, interact with people in the best way possible and able to connect with everyone who genuinely wants to connect with me.

Stage One –

Understand WHERE you want to be

With so many invitations coming through now, there is a danger of stretching yourself too thin. I have received two more invitations to new networks in the short period of time I have been writing this column. Unless you plan to make membership of social networks a full time occupation, it would be impossible for anyone to be an effective, active member of every network available, so be selective.

There are probably four types of online network for me. Those I will never join; those I join, upload a profile but never visit again; those I join, upload a profile and visit occasionally and those I commit to.

The networks that I commit to are the ones who draw me in, encourage me to contribute and demonstrate a value to being there. For a long time LinkedIn was a network on which I had a profile and visited infrequently as there was such little apparent activity on the site. Over the last 12-15 months two things have happened to change that. The network themselves have added more functionality, allowing you to achieve more through the site, and more people have been drawn to LinkedIn, making activity there more rewarding.

Therefore, you do need to join a few networks and try them out to find out where you are at home, where you feel most comfortable and which ones demonstrate that membership will deliver a return for you, whatever that may be.

That leads us nicely onto

Stage Two –

Understand WHY you want to be there

In my opinion, the most effective way to exploit the sheer number of networks is to use each for a different purpose. If you simply join a lot of networks and use them in the same way, you will find yourself repeating the same activity again and again. Can you really afford to spend your time doing that?

People have talked for a long time about wanting a site, or some software, that replicates your content and profile across networks. I know such software is being developed and wouldn’t be surprised to find out it already exists. You can already post a ‘tweet’ on Twitter and see it duplicated on Facebook and elsewhere.

That’s all very nice but doesn’t it take away the ‘human’ element of social networking? Have a look at the Facebook page of someone who feeds their tweets through. You will see a lot of activity, much of which doesn’t make sense in isolation and using jargon from one network (Twitter) that makes no sense to Facebook users not accustomed to it.

The redesign of Facebook into a Tweeter-style feed is going to encourage this activity more. It means that people using this technology will have fewer reasons to visit Facebook and will no longer be ‘networking’ on it. Facebook will simply be reduced to another broadcast mechanism, rather than a tool for effective engagement and interaction.

If you want to broadcast, that’s fine. My approach takes a slightly different direction though. I believe that each network can play a different purpose. For example:

Facebook is a very human network and provides the opportunity for your professional network to find out about the person, and for your personal network to find out about your profession. It is a great tool for deepening relationships and, used wisely, building trust.

LinkedIn’s primary purpose is to aid connections. You can find out how you are connected to the key people you want to meet, and secure the introductions through your existing network.

Networks such as Ecademy, Xing and FastPitch encourage you to build the breadth of your network by making new connections. These are great fora for meeting new people, finding out about them and developing the beginnings of a relationship. They also allow you to build on those relationships through various events, clubs and ongoing conversations.

By taking that type of approach to your online networking, it means that you can be more selective about

Stage Three –

Understanding WHO you want to connect with there

Following the approach above, you would only invite existing contacts to link to you on Facebook or LinkedIn, while having other networks you can direct newcomers to. Let them develop the relationship on one of the other networks before taking it to the next stage.

An additional benefit to this approach is that it is easier to find and connect contacts in your ‘deeper’ networks. One of the problems of building mass connections is finding people if you’re not looking by name. Keeping these networks smaller makes that task much easier.

The numbers of social networks is going to continue growing as niche networks become more popular. With the increase in popularity of Ning and similar sites, more of your contacts will develop, and invite you to, their own personal social network, while face to face networks you belong to and industry bodies will all invite you to theirs.

Without a strategy to approach these invitations, you run the risk of becoming overwhelmed and turning your back on social networking completely.

Now, that wouldn’t make you too popular!

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