Like many independent professionals these days, I’ve started using a few social networking tools such as Facebook, Ning, LinkedIn and MySpace. My experience with them is fairly limited, but I’ve been thinking about some of the positives and negatives of using these websites for networking and marketing.
To me, the primary advantage of social networking sites is that they make it very easy for someone to find and contact you, especially if you don’t have a very visible website for your business. Rather than having to have your e-mail address, or searching for your website and then finding your contact information, the person who’s looking for you can simply type your name into the social networking site’s search box and contact you right from your page. In addition, social networking sites make it easy to find “friends of friends” who you might want to contact or work with, and you can also easily search for people who share a certain characteristic with you, like your alma mater, profession, home town, etc. Social networking sites also eliminate the need to keep an updated e-mail address book for people who you contact infrequently, since you can just contact them via the site.
Social networking sites are also a good way to cross-promote your blog if you have one. Facebook and Ning both allow you to feed your blog directly onto your page on their site (other social networking sites may offer this feature too, I just haven’t tried it!).
Of the sites listed above, LinkedIn is, to me, the most “professional” and also the most controllable. There is almost no room to include personal information, and other people can’t post anything to your page without your approval; for example if someone writes a recommendation about you, it doesn’t appear on your page until you approve it. On Facebook, you have to adjust your privacy settings quite carefully if you don’t want all of your “friends” to be able to see photos, comments, etc. that people have posted of and about you. Even if the most sordid moments of your life are far from tabloid fodder, you might not necessarily want your clients to see photos of you with 80’s hair or comments from your friends asking for your lasagna recipe, so this is something to consider when setting up your profile.
Ning is interesting in that it allows you to create your own social network for a group of people. Recently, the all-women freelancers group I’m in, Boulder Media Women set up a Ning site, and I also joined Office Walkers, a Ning group for people who use treadmill desks.
Overall, LinkedIn is my favorite of these networking sites; I don’t have to wade through a news feed about who’s playing online Scrabble or deal with flashing ads for weight loss products, and LinkedIn allows me to easily browse for people who I’d like to add to my network. So far, I’ve gotten many more business contacts through my blog than through LinkedIn or Facebook, but I think that these sites are worth joining in order to make yourself more visible on the Web.