10 Tips for Becoming a Smarter Social Business Person

The web is filled with social networks: We have Twitter for meeting new people, Facebook for old college buddies, and Bebo for those of us who don’t want to hang out with the mainstream. Those social networks are rarely viewed as corporate services — they’re relaxing at the end of a long workday, not playgrounds for more business activity. But I would argue that social networks provide value to a business person on several levels, whether it be for those furiously working each day in a cubicle or for others closing big deals on the golf course.

Social networks can help make you a smarter business person, and there’s a lot of corporate value to be found in them. (Did you know that Dell has made over $6 million from Twitter alone?) It’s time to exploit them for your business, and here’s how:

1. Get involved. The only way to use social networks to improve business is to join some sites. LinkedIn is a good start, but you’ll need to do much more if you plan to make your social life profitable. Social networks require participation. If you don’t get involved, you’ll never find value in the social web.

2. There’s more than LinkedIn. There’s little debating that LinkedIn is ideal for those who want to network with other professionals. But Twitter, Facebook and the rest also provide real value to a business person. In many cases, they allow you to find folks you might have otherwise missed offline. They also provide you with a “cheat sheet” of information, like interests and education, that could help you close a deal. For example, I recently got in touch with a local professional who needed some basic tech services. I used Facebook to get to know him and what his interests were. When we finally had a chance to meet, I referenced his love of the New York Yankees and some films we both enjoy to get the conversation started, which may have helped me close the deal.

3. It’s networking, but online. One of the first rules you learn in any business school is to network. It’s not always what you know, it’s who you know. Social-networking sites are ideal for those who want to network. You can use them to get back in touch with old friends, get to know colleagues, or network with other local professionals trying to do the same. You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to get to know clients when you’re introduced by a mutual acquaintance.

4. Don’t underestimate Twitter’s value. It might not seem like the best choice for a business person at first glance, but after further inspection, you might find that Twitter is a fine networking platform. It’s filled with active members who want to get to know others, and there are far more professionals than you think. And thanks to several third-party Twitter tools, like WeFollow, it shouldn’t take long to find folks in your area you want to target. WeFollow lets you find people based on categories. So if you want to find entrepreneurs, you can. If you want to find marketing professionals in New York, you can do that, too.

Dell, for one, has shown just how important Twitter can be to a company’s bottom line by offering sales through its Twitter feed, listening to what customers are looking for, and telling those followers about available coupons. In the meantime, besides the $6.5 million it’s pulled in from using the site, it’s attracted a whopping 1.5 million followers looking for deals.

5. Join the conversation. Once you join social networks and you know who you want to target, start talking. Get to know what they discuss and join that discussion. Social networking is not about being shy; it’s about being willing to open up in an online world that has stayed anonymous for far too long. That means you’ll need to talk about your interests and topics that others in your social network are engaged in.

6. It’s not about the numbers. Although some believe the more friends or followers you have on your favorite social network, the better, I don’t. If you want to turn your social life into more business, find followers and friends who either improve your relations with the surrounding community or increase your prospects of securing clients. Don’t waste time with big follower numbers. Most times, it’s that core group that will provide the most value. A company in my hometown currently has a little over 200 followers on Twitter. But according to that company’s owner, they’re some of the store’s most reliable customers; when the owner sends out sales information or coupons, these are the folks who are most likely to redeem them. Twitter lets you engage in extremely effective marketing for free.

I learned this lesson the hard way when I first started using Twitter. I didn’t discuss topics my followers cared about. Instead, I focused all my tweets on the tech business. Some folks stopped following me; others asked me to stop talking about business so much. It was a great wake-up call. Today, I talk about tech and business, but I also discuss other topics that are important to me and my followers.

8. Don’t go overboard. Don’t think that you need to join every new site that crops up. Instead, stick to two to four social networks. By doing so, you can still be on the sites that other folks are on, but you won’t get caught up in trying to update every site you use.

I wish someone had told me this a long time ago. At this point, I belong to well over 35 social networks. They range from the big ones like Facebook to relatively unknown services like Plurk and Identi.ca. For a while, I tried to keep all those profiles up-to-date. But it became too time-consuming and I was forced to scale back. Today, I maintain active updates on Twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed. Everything else is left dormant.

9. Share what you know. Social networks provide value because users can share their expertise. If you’re into stamp collecting, let us know. If you’re an expert in derivatives, tell us about it. Don’t simply regurgitate what you see in so many other places on the web. Although I write about technology for a living, I’m actually quite knowledgeable in financial topics and baseball history. I was surprised to see how many of my social-networking buddies have those same interests, and it’s helped us form a better professional bond.

10. Remember your employer. Anything and everything you say is a direct reflection on those who employ you. Don’t use profanity. Don’t say nasty things about the competition. Just as you would at any dinner meeting, represent your company well. Companies have worked with PR companies for years to disseminate only the information they want shared, and today, any employee can say anything with a click of a button. If you plan to help your business through social networks, remember that your job could be on the line if you say the wrong thing.

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