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Use social media to build professional relationships.

Social media is a powerful tool in business, connecting you with current and potential clients. From their profiles, you gain a better understanding of who they are, what they do, how they think and who they know. The key to using social media successfully is building an online network of people who can help your business and whom you can help in return.

To start, connect with people you know in real life. When setting up your profile, most social networks ask you to import the contact list from your email. If you don’t know how to do this, you can also log in to your email through the social network to retrieve your contact list. And, even if you’ve already set up your profile, you can import new contacts at any time.

Once you’ve imported your contact list, send invitations to connect with your contacts on the social network. You may be asked if you want to send a customized message along with the invitation. Consider writing a personalized message to each person. Personalization stands out, especially in social media.

LinkedIn is the network most professionals feel comfortable using. Many don’t like to connect on Facebook, a site largely used to share personal photos and updates. If you receive a Facebook invitation from a professional contact and don’t want to become ‘friends,’ don’t ignore the invitation. That person knows you’ve ignored their invite, and it could be awkward the next time you meet in real life. Instead, send a private message through Facebook and ask to connect on LinkedIn.

In most cases, you can follow any user on Twitter without asking for his or her permission. And when you import your contact list into Twitter, you’ll see the profiles of all of your contacts. You can also send an invitation to contacts that have not yet joined Twitter.

Once your contacts accept your invitation to connect, you’ll see their full profiles, including people to which they’re connected. Now you have direct access to their database of contacts, giving you potential leads for your own business. If you see someone you want to connect with, consider asking your contact for an introduction either within the social network or via email. You can also send an invite to the new contact directly. If you choose to do so, write a personalized message explaining who you are and why you want to connect. Otherwise, your invitation may be ignored.

Once you’ve made your connections, get organized. Most social networks let you create private lists to group your contacts together. LinkedIn’s premium account allows you to save specific profiles and group them together in folders, while Facebook and Twitter offer similar features for free. Organize your contacts based on a system that works for you. One technique is to organize them by relationship – colleagues, current clients, prospective clients, competition, et cetera. Then, when you want to check on a specific group, simply pull up the list or folder.

Next, decide how you want to participate. The majority of social media users, particularly on LinkedIn, are passive users – they may log in regularly, but don’t share any updates or content. Stand out by consistently offering content that adds value. This value might be informative, such as a link to a new study; educational, such as a how-to blog post; or entertaining, such as a funny video related to your industry. Whatever you decide to share, it should always be professional. After all, what you share through social networks is a direct reflection on your professional image.

Finally, the best way to strengthen your online relationships is to meet your connections in the real world. Consider scheduling a coffee or lunch each week with a new person or organize a get-together with a group of people you’ve met online. That way, you’re doing a service to other people and keeping your schedule manageable!
Building your online network takes time and effort, but within a few months – perhaps even weeks — you’ll see results.


About Tracy Samantha Schmidt

Tracy Samantha Schmidt is the director of Crain's Social Media Group. She also works closely with the 850 employees across Crain's 30 publications in her role as director of social media strategy for Crain Communications. Social media has been central to her career in the media and higher education. In the last two years alone, she has taught social media strategy to more than 15,000 people nationwide.