If you want evidence that social media has changed the game for professional networking, consider that more than 75 percent of hiring managers in the Information Technology sector report using social networks to screen candidates. A survey from CareerBuilder suggested most employers use social networks for evidence to support qualifications for positions, while one in five admit they’re looking for reasons to disqualify candidates.

“The best thing to do is to speak softly when using social media,” said Heath Lynch, TDK Technologies Recruiter. “It’s about having intelligent conversations with a goal behind those conversations.”

It is now easier than ever to tap into the power of your professional network. The same level of effort it once took to make a handful of good connections can now result in hundreds of connections. With this power comes both potential risk and reward. When used correctly, professional networking via social media can unlock many doors and create valuable opportunities for professional development and advancement. However, when done incorrectly, you can burn many bridges and close doors of opportunity.

“People need to understand that if they are on a social networking site, you are what you post. You are who you follow,” said Bill Courtney, Director of Recruiting at TDK Technologies. “Stay away from controversy.”

So how can one effectively utilize social media for professional development, thereby reaping the potential rewards and avoiding the common pitfalls? Like most professional endeavors, there is no one size fits all approach. But there are several common sense guidelines that can help keep you on the path to successful networking.

Set goals and objectives for your social media usage. Are you looking for new employment opportunities? Are you looking to connect with similar professionals? Are you looking to explore options for a possible change in careers or a shift in your professional path? Perhaps you are looking to do all three and more. Clearly defining your goals and objectives will help keep you on task and make the most of your time.

Considering your goals and objectives, does a particular social media site allow you to craft strategies and tactics which help you achieve them? Is your target audience even on this network (i.e. like minded professionals, potential employers, potential business partners, etc.)? If so, listen to what they are saying and learn how they are using the network. 

“If you use your current company and title in professional networking, you should be careful about what you are saying. Keep it professional,” Courtney said.

Do you observe others attempting to achieve the same or similar goals to yours on this network? If so, which strategies and tactics seem to be working, and which ones tend to alienate the user from the rest of the community? Always learn the norms and etiquette of the community before jumping in. This will not only allow you to fit in if you do decide to engage in networking there, it will also help you determine if that particular network is worth the time you might spend there.

“For example, I am seeing how other social media lifestyles are finding their way onto LinkedIn. It's not Twitter or Facebook. You don't want to shoot for as many likes and follows as possible. You want professional engagement,” Lynch said.

Keep it professional. It’s quite easy to let habits from your personal social media usage creep in to your professional networking. You’ve probably seen those who treat their LinkedIn status updates like a Facebook feed, letting everyone know where they just ate lunch or went on vacation. Don’t dilute your professional message with personal updates. You’ve also probably seen individuals getting into heated arguments over professional topics on social media sites. Even worse is debating non-professional topics. Attempts to convince employers and colleagues that you are a team player will not be aided by arguing with people in a forum that is visible to the entire world.

“Have an opinion but don’t be opinionated,” Courtney said. “In the IT world there are different development methodologies and software development approaches. Different people have opinions about certain tools. The best approach is to state your view, but be open to other opinions. Don’t be derisive or negative.”

Participate and engage with the community. One-way communication is not a conversation, it is merely broadcasting a message, and one that will likely reach few, if any, valuable contacts. Listening, observing and learning first allows you to know both where to participate and who to engage with. By then striking up or joining a meaningful conversation, you are greatly increasing your odds of making beneficial professional connections.

“If I am trying to make inroads with a company or a user group, I will follow them and probably not say anything for a while. I’m going to be observant, see what they are sharing or posting, think critically in a constructive manner; not critically in a personal manner,” Lynch said. “And then I will speak softly. I will enter a conversation and try to make inroads where I can.”

Make the most of your Social media profile. People are far more likely to connect with someone who has completed their profile with interesting and useful details. Add a picture and make sure it looks professional and appealing. Snapping a photo of yourself in the mirror with your cell phone might work for Facebook, but is that really the impression you want to provide for potential professional contacts? Complete details like current and past employment, education, skills, professional interests, projects you’ve worked on, etc. Complete profiles are also far more likely to come up in social search results as well. Other professionals are actively seeking out connections, so make yourself easy to find and create a profile that is likely to “convert” when the right people land there.

Know your professional networking bandwidth and delegate your limited time efficiently. You should have researched potential social networks and assessed them in terms of their ability to help you achieve your goals. Signing up for a social network and neglecting it tends to cause more harm than good.

Only commit to participating in social networks where you have the time to engage with the community on a regular basis, and where you have a reasonable expectation of achieving your goals through that engagement. If you are new to professional networking, a wise choice is to start with just one network. LinkedIn is an obvious choice considering it is the premier social media site for professional networking.

“It is healthy to be on LinkedIn on a daily basis, if for nothing more than to check if someone wants to connect with you,” Lynch said.  “It is also healthy to do your own post once a week on LinkedIn. And share items a couple times each week. That’s a good measure of being active with your account without being overbearing,” Lynch said.

Speaking of LinkedIn, there are a few ways to make the most out of your experience there. Do you want to make connections at a certain company? Try following their company page and engaging with their company status updates. This will undoubtedly put you on the radar of company team members who are most active on LinkedIn. When you do make connections, don’t hesitate to leverage them to connect with someone who might help you achieve your goals and objectives. In fact, that is really what LinkedIn is all about, using effective social media in order to get connected to that contact which would be all but impossible to connect with in a world without social media.

Get to the point when making contacts and asking questions. Whether you are on LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+ or elsewhere, professionals are busy people and often don’t have the time or desire to wade through several “how’s the weather” messages before fielding your question. Be specific, too. If a question is broad enough that your potential connection has to think just to figure out what you are asking, your chances of getting a response start plummeting fast.

Take it from the digital world to the real world in order to seal the deal. Social media is an ideal place for getting that lunch or meeting set up with your potential connection. Keep in mind that is where the real benefit of professional networking with social media comes into play - in making connections. Social media is not an ideal place for actually doing business, discussing professional development opportunities, or directly meeting most worthwhile goals or objectives. That is not to say you cannot do these things with social media, but your results will tend to be greater in person. In this way, social media becomes a powerful tool to leverage towards achieving your goals.

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