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Virtual connections: Business networking Web sites are all the rage, but there's a learning curve to using them effectively

November 26, 2007

Business networking Web sites are all the rage, but there's a learning curve to using them effectively

What's the best way to introduce a colleague to a potentially valuable business contact?

Where should you place a name tag for the most optimal viewing by others?

Which one is the salad fork?

Such burning questions have plagued many a professional seeking to stand out in the business world. And while reaching for the incorrect utensil at an important dinner with clients may not make or break a deal, using proper etiquette will go a long way toward making the right impression.

The Internet complicates the world of business etiquette in the 21st century. For those who have finally mastered the do's and don'ts of email, instant messaging and online job searches, virtual networking is the next frontier.

Growing popularity

Web sites such as LinkedIn, Plaxo Pulse and others offer a host of networking opportunities. With the click of a mouse, a recruiter in Rochester can be connected with an applicant in Ann Arbor. An executive in El Paso can find a client in Cleveland. A buyer in Boise can hook up with a seller in Seattle.

Many in the business world are flocking to business networking sites, much like teen-agers and college students embraced social networking sites Myspace and Facebook a few years ago.

But the potential pitfalls are equally plentiful. Improper Internet introductions, sloppily written messages and typo-ridden online profiles can be just as damaging as any face-to-face transgression.

Inviting guests

Most of the protocol surrounding virtual business networking has to do with whom users invite to join their groups and how those invitations are extended.

With 16 million users around the world, LinkedIn is the most widely used online business network. Members join for free and begin by creating public profiles. The next step is to build a list of contacts by inviting clients, colleagues and others to join private networks.

"By giving someone access [to your network], you trust that they're going to treat your network as valuable an entity as you would," said Jenny Vance, vice president and general manager at Indianapolis-based marketing firm LeadJen.

Don't invite just anyone to join your network and don't accept invitations from strangers, advises Boston Globe and Yahoo Finance columnist Penelope Trunk. In her LinkedInsponsored Web Log, The Brazen Careerist, Trunk writes that the quality of one's contacts is far more important than the quantity.

"You will get more benefits from LinkedIn if you have a network of 30 people you know well than 300 people you don't really know," she blogs.

LinkedIn allows users to dictate the circumstances under which they would like to be contacted-whether it's for job inquiries, potential business deals or simply getting back in touch with former colleagues or classmates.

Chris Fuller, regional recruiting manager for Milwaukee-based Titus, a consulting firm with offices in Indianapolis, has been using LinkedIn for four years. He said the "bull in the china shop" is the person who disregards those designations and makes random connections without a proper introduction or mutual contact.

Right or wrong, Fuller has come to expect unsolicited connections on LinkedIn.

"The individual who puts their profile on a social or professional networking site knows they're going to be contacted," he said.

Privately held LinkedIn Corp., based in Mountain View, Calif., was founded in 2003. It distinguishes itself from the popular social networks Myspace and Facebook by staying strictly professional.

Business and pleasure

Plaxo, meanwhile, is an amalgamation of the two. Also based in Mountain View, Plaxo lets its users set up friends, family and business groups through its new Pulse service.

As with LinkedIn, users join Plaxo networks by invitation. Through agreements with other Web sites such as YouTube, members can share videos, photos, links and other content with one another.

With Plaxo Pulse, "I am getting basically a custom news feed of what's going on in the lives of the people I know and care about," said John McCrea, Plaxo's vice president of marketing.

When it comes to the etiquette of sharing content and setting up contacts, not much has been defined. While Plaxo users can report cases of inappropriate use, the company doesn't provide its members with any guidelines for everyday use.

"There's very little in the way of established rules of behavior," McCrea said. That will likely change as Plaxo, LinkedIn and other sites become more popular, he added.

"There's no doubt we're still in the experimental phase of social networking, maybe where the Web was in 1994," McCrea said. "The rules have not been fully [defined]."

In the end, social networkers say the benefits of making connections online far outweigh any misgivings about Internet etiquette.

LeadJen's Vance was encouraged by a client to join LinkedIn, even though she wasn't sure it would be worth her time.

"At first I wasn't a big fan of the concept," she said. "But I have actually enjoyed using it to connect with past clients when there was no other way to reach them."

Breaking down geographical barriers has given Titus' Fuller a leg up in his recruiting efforts.

"I work in Indianapolis, but I'm virtually connected to people that I never would have had the chance to meet," he said. "It's a really good way to stay connected."
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