Networking in the Digital Age – a Few Thoughts
A few weeks ago I participated in a session called “networking in the digital age” at IBM’s Interconnect conference and I thought I’d share some thoughts in a more coherent way here, to a broader audience.
First off, there are a few platforms that matter, to me, for what we’ll refer to as networking:
- third places
- Social Media:
- Blogging / RSS Readers
- LinkedIn Posts (not status updates)
Face-to-face is how we’ve been doing it all along. Meeting at conferences and meetups. But I’ll also include third-places: Starbucks or your favorite coffee shop or pub; the soccer games your kids play in; the airports, hotels, and other places traveling professionals are forced to gather; co-working spaces like WeWork, Link Coworking, and CapitalFactory.
The most interesting things to point out here are that your face-to-face interactions are likely to be improved and enhanced by online interactions on other platforms. When you’ve gotten to know someone online via Twitter/etc. – the quality of your connection in person at a conference is likely to be considerably higher, because you’re already starting from a place of familiarity. It is like catching up with an old classmate, friend, or colleague, rather than meeting someone new.
The second thing I’ll point out is how few people take advantage of third spaces. I’m somewhat of a creature of habit – going to the same coffee shop every day, for example. As a result, I’ve made friends with neighbors that I met at coffee shops. I’ve made friends in airports and on airplanes that are connected to other colleagues. I’ve met people that we later hired. I’ve had the opportunity to help people get jobs, get into college (encouraging them to apply to the right schools at least!), and I’ve made lifelong friends that enrich my life.
You might think, from the previous paragraph that I’m a pretty outgoing person, who doesn’t sweat meeting new people. You’d be wrong. I’m not outgoing. But I care about people, I take an interest, and I keep my eyes open, so I notice people. This gives you the chance to hold the door for them, to help keep their child from running into the parking lot, and to make sure the right Scott gets the right drink at the coffee bar. Taking an interest in other people, with no expectation of return, is where it starts.
So how does caring about people translate into the online dimension of social media? Let’s take a step back and think about the channels first, and come back to this.
First, I think about these social networks as having distinct value propositions.
- Facebook: this is my personal social network. Friends from all walks of life and parts of my life. But it is not my work network. I have some crossover between work and personal on Facebook, but I try to minimize it. We do leverage FB for some work-related social media. Our work page publishes best-places-to-work awards and other similar recognition of a more personal nature. Things that our team would take pride in sharing with their friends and family – that’s what Facebook has been fantastic for, for BP3. But there are businesses where Facebook is also an ideal way to connect with customers – think florists, photographers, vacation destinations.
- LinkedIn: this is my professional network. And also where we put a lot of emphasis for our company’s presence online. It doesn’t replace your own website but it is a great way to connect with professionals in your domain or within your customers. I can keep track of connections over the course of our careers, through job and life changes. I have the opportunity to post updates to this network that have reasonable visibility without being pushy. And when I meet customers or prospects, I can quickly see who we might know in common, professionally. I consider LinkedIn the table-stakes network for professionals. Manage your profile, post a professional picture, and connect to your colleagues. It will pay off in years to come.
- Twitter: This is my communication medium. Because the graph is unidirectional – you can follow someone without them following you, and vice versa – there is less guilt about posting what you want to share. If people don’t want to read it, they’ll unfollow you and move on. There’s no social mores against unfollowing on Twitter. Two strategies to keep in mind for Twitter, one for following, and one for publishing:
- It is a good idea to only follow people that don’t overwhelm your main timeline – I like to follow people who post < 10 times a day normally, but that isn’t a hard and fast rule. When someone is posting 100+ times a day, I’m not following them on my feed because they crowd out the other voices. Manage the people in your main feed as if it is a customized view into what’s going on in the world – it should include personal interests, professional interests, and maybe some news, though you’ll find that news will get retweeted (posted) by your other followers.
- For publishing, sure, don’t post what you had for breakfast very often. But do post about things you care about. Remember that Twitter isn’t meant to be your therapist, so don’t just turn it into a complaint fest – and yet, realize that a complaint to a company made on Twitter is likely to get a response from customer care. It is a new kind of power you have as a Twitter user. I communicate on Twitter on a few topics: BPM, BP3, Apple, Sports (Go Stanford!), Austin, and Startups. The rest of my communications there are mainly interacting with other people on topics of the day.
- One more thought: if you want a comprehensive user guide to Twitter, I highly recommend this site, which explains a lot of the socially accepted ways of using Twitter’s features to create a richer interaction. In a way, Twitter has its own grammar and short-hand and it helps to learn it.
Last note on these platforms. While Facebook is awesome for personally connecting, and LinkedIn is almost a necessity for professionally connecting… Twitter is special. Twitter is the platform that lets an average joe communicate with Marc Andreeson and have a reasonable expectation that he will respond. The incredible access to the intelligentsia of the current day is unmatched by any other platform. I’m pretty sure this is the least understood aspect of Twitter’s appeal.
Circling back to our original point – how does social media relate to taking an interest in people? This should be obvious. Whether it is writing happy birthday on your friend’s Facebook wall, or congratulating someone on a new job or role, or having a conversation on twitter about something mutually interesting, these platforms allow you to show you care. If you care, these platforms will magnify the effects of that caring. And you’ll feel that impact when you meet in person – you’ll be more excited to see them, and they you.
Is there still a place for the long-form communications we used to get from magazines and newspapers and now get largely from Blogs and glorified blogs (HuffPo etc.) ? Of course there is.
First, let’s talk about LinkedIn. They added a “posts” feature which lets you write long-form content and share it. It’s a good platform. It gets your thoughts out to a wider audience and it is easy to share, and gets shared on Pulse. Moreover, LinkedIn pulls out references to your contacts on LinkedIn and shares your posts to their network in an email update every day or week. That’s all good.
But getting your thoughts out isn’t enough. Remember that that traffic is all on LinkedIn. You may not benefit commercially from that, but LinkedIn does. So why do it? One, to get your voice heard. Two, to build your brand and allow people to find you. Third, to draw people to your company page on LinkedIn or to your own website or blog. Posting eliminates the overhead of clicking on a link that takes you to a third-party site (yours), so you’ll get more readership. You may find people more willing to comment on LinkedIn than on your own blog as well. Welcome the comments and respond!
Second, there’s Medium. It takes the idea of LinkedIn posts to a new level. The editing and sharing tools are sharper, simpler. It is its own network in a sense, and it does a good job of bringing you curated content based on what your network is “Liking” on Medium. Medium tracks your stats for you, and makes it easy for you to publish your thoughts into other publications. Best yet: you retain rights to what you write. I would reserve Medium for the writing you have the most confidence in. It isn’t the place for half-baked efforts.
Third, there’s your own blog. You might think that LinkedIn posts and Medium and other similar platforms eliminate the need for a blog, but you’d be wrong. You need a place to send this new audience! Send them to your twitter handle for sure, but also send them to your blog! Make sure they can subscribe to your blog. On your blog: the main thrust should be topics that relate to your business, but there’s room to deviate and write about topics that are inspiring to your main business, or topics that are tangential but interesting to a broad audience.
So what do I write about on the BP3 blog?
- Business Process Management (BPM)
- Any story I can tie back to BPM – including stories about Apple, and Startups
- Apple (see above)
- Startups (see above)
- Food in Austin (see above, as this relates to BPM, startups, and Austin).
Why write about startups? There’s a lot of process involved in starting up a business, and our team can relate to it. Why write about Austin? Because that’s where BP3 is based. We like to share how we’re doing here in Austin with our customers, who take an interest in BP3 beyond just the work we do for them. Apple? Because there are often tie-ins to our own thoughts about mobile interfaces and about business process management. Apple may be the most interesting company to understand over the last 20 years. Finally, why food? Because it ties into process, startups, and Austin… what’s not to like? Plus, you can eat the advice when you visit Austin.
How do you get started if you don’t have a blog? The best way to get started is to write 5 posts before you post the first one. If you can’t write five, then you’re not ready to blog yet. When you have five, start posting one per week. By the time you get through the first five, you should have established a habit of writing one per week – perhaps on Sunday nights. If you haven’t, you’re in trouble :) You want a backlog so that the blog can continue to post when you’re on vacation, etc. When your backlog gets too large, or too many of the posts are time-sensitive, start posting more frequently – at first, just the time sensitive posts go faster. Then if you find you’re blogging more often in general go ahead and publish a couple times a week. If you get to a daily pace, great. If not, that’s fine! People value quality over quantity.
Another thought on blogs: I recommend hosting on your own company site, rather than a separate site. There’s a real benefit to the blogger of hosting elsewhere – they build their own audience. But if you’re a founder, post on your company site- you’re building your company, not your own brand, right? Your brand will get plenty of attention as it is if you post on LinkedIn, Medium, and Twitter. Have an agreement with your company that you own the rights to your own writing, or have mutual rights. But build the audience for your company first.
Photo based networks
Instagram and Snapchat and others are interesting because they focus on a different medium, primarily: the photo. We have an Instagram account and we use it for conferences and the like – but our work isn’t highly visual in nature so it isn’t our primary social network interaction. We haven’t seen a professional use of Snapchat that applies to our business yet but we’re keeping our eyes open (recruiting perhaps?)
Instagram in combination with Twitter and Facebook is powerful for visually oriented companies.
So now you’re armed. But the only thing that will get you from here to your digitally networked future is you, and being true to yourself. If you enjoy this work, it won’t feel like work, it will be the fun part of your day. If you dread this work, find someone else at your company to do it!