Don't let this networking tool create disaster for your business

Like children with a shiny new toy, adults introduced to social media jumped in and started playing: posting personal photos to Facebook, accepting friendship requests from long-lost high school pals and checking into every location. Suddenly, users got an inside look into the lives of people they hadn't connected with in years. But unlike a new toy, social media didn't come with any real instructions. Users unwrapped it and off they went.

Rules of Engagement

Without guidelines on how to use social media, disaster is just a tweet away. Many people—and companies—have found this out the hard way. Embarrassing gaffs, impulsive rants and misguided comments are evident across all platforms.

What you post on social media is out there forever. The Internet never forgets; a selfie posted after a night on the town or a tweet about a colleague can cause more damage than you think. It's dangerous to assume that privacy settings protect you. Even if you have locked down your Facebook page, once it's posted to the Web, you can guarantee someone who is not directly connected to you will find it. All it takes is one of your "friends" sharing it.

Just like the law, what you say can and will be held against you. Your future boss, clients, partners, voters and vendors are watching. A good rule, whether you are engaging on social media for personal use or business use, is this: If you wouldn't say it loudly, in front of your boss or your mother, you shouldn't post it online.

With so many companies supporting bring your own device (BYOD) initiatives, it's now more important than ever that your company create a clear social media policy for employees. Your employees are representatives of your brand, and in business, perception is everything. To protect yourself from the embarrassment of a social media misstep, create a policy that clearly states what you expect from your employees when it comes to social media use. Set clear boundaries, especially for those who are integral to your brand-building process.

Do I Know You?

In this world of connectivity, how connected are we, really? Has the word "connected" lost its meaning? With our ability to connect to anyone, anytime, anywhere through social media, the term has been watered down. Think about how many of the generic "I'd like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn" invitations you receive each month. Very few of them are from people you have truly connected with outside of social media.

Before LinkedIn, you wouldn't dream of asking a new acquaintance to buy something from you just minutes after you met. Just like offline networking, building relationships online follows the same basic etiquette rules. The following are a few to keep in mind:

  • Be professional. Post a professional photo of yourself to your profile. A business colleague should recognize you from your online picture. Include information about yourself. Your social media profiles are the equivalent of your business card, so be sure you keep it updated as your professional information changes. Always keep your basic contact information updated, and link to your other professional profiles.
  • Introduce yourself. Want people to get a sense of who you are? Post interesting, value-added content on your social media accounts to showcase your professional expertise. This is especially true with LinkedIn. When you update your status with useful information, you're building trust among your network and opening doors for introductions to new connections.
  • Be authentic. One of the biggest mistakes people make when connecting on social media is not personalizing the message in the invitation. Swap out the default message with something like "George, I really enjoy your blog at xblog.com. The leadership content you share is so valuable. I'd like to add you to my professional network and get to know more about your business." This lets the recipient know how you found them and why you want to connect.
  • Listen. Building connections through social media isn't just about pushing out content on this network or that one. If you are not taking time to listen and engage with influential people (the ones you are hoping to connect with), you're missing an opportunity. Choose a handful of key people you want to build a business relationship with, read what they are posting, and where there is an opportunity for you to add value—jump in!

Whether you connect with people online or in a business meeting, knowing how to present yourself is the same. "Think before you speak" translates to "Think before you tweet."