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Old People Need "Friends," Too: Using Social Networking Sites for Business

When I recently set up my new Facebook account, it didn’t take long—only about 10 minutes—before my cell phone rang. It was my son Logan, a college freshman, and he wasn’t pleased. “What are you doing on Facebook?” he scowled. “Are you doing it just to stay close to me?” (Heaven forbid!)

“No,” I patiently explained. “I’m doing it for business networking purposes. It has absolutely nothing to do with you. If you don’t want to accept me as an online friend, that’s fine.”

My response seemed to satisfy him, but an hour later I found the following posted on my Facebook “wall”: “Why do all these old people have Facebooks?” My response, which I posted on his wall: “Old people need friends, too.”

For those of you who don’t know about Facebook, it is, according to the website’s fact sheet, “a social utility that helps people communicate more efficiently with their friends, family and coworkers.” Founded in 2004, it is the #1 social networking site in the world and the fourth most-trafficked website in the world.

Those of you who do know about Facebook, perhaps through your teenage children, may view it as a secret online society that no one over 21 can infiltrate. Yet here’s the truth: more than half of Facebook’s 90 million active users are older than college age and its fastest growing demographic is people 25 years and older. When I set up my Facebook account, my son and teenage nieces became part of my network—but so did many of the working adults I know, in my own workplace and others. People from my current and former home town reached out to me, along with co-workers, professional colleagues, and former classmates.

You’ve probably received e-mails asking you to join a colleague’s LinkedIn online network. Founded in 2003, LinkedIn is geared exclusively to businesspeople. The network now has more than 23 million users—average age, 41. LinkedIn is now growing faster than Facebook. Other sites include MySpace, Twitter, and Google’s Orkut.

So what can social networking sites do for you? “Everybody who is working should have a LinkedIn profile,” says Kathleen Taylor, executive recruiter and co-author of How to Succeed in Business Using LinkedIn (AMACOM, 2009). “Your current job should build your resume to get you the next job you want. That’s how you let people know what you’re doing, what kind of skills you’re getting on this job so that the next time you move you bring even more to the table.”

Lindsey Pollak, speaker and author of Getting from College to Career: 90 Things to Do Before You Join the Real World (HarperCollins, 2007) is also a LinkedIn fan: “For business people,” says Pollak, “a presence on LinkedIn is no longer optional.” In fact, Pollak’s husband found his former job through the site. Now director of sales at another employer, he recently hired his entire team using LinkedIn. “If I were hiring and I saw that a college student had a profile on LinkedIn,” says Pollak, “I’d be impressed that he or she is an early adopter.”

What about Facebook? Should businesspeople have a presence there as well? “I have to say, I love Facebook,” says Taylor. “It’s just a little more personal than LinkedIn. The great thing about Facebook is that I can go online right now and see who’s online with me. If it’s a client I’ve been trying to get hold of to talk about doing some work, it is absolutely the best way to reach them, because they’re in a little more of a casual mood; they’re not really thinking about avoiding calls from a recruiter. Say they’ve got something on their Facebook saying they just got back from a nice vacation or had a nice dinner somewhere—it’s a great way to just reach out and say, ‘Hey, it sounds like you’re having a great weekend; how are things going for you at work? Would you have some time to talk this week?’ It’s very casual and very personal.”

Some businesses, worried that networking too often translates to “not working,” have blocked employee access to social networking sites in the workplace. Andrea Nierenberg, a New York consultant and the author of three books on networking, worries social networking sites can be major time wasters for employees. “People are on these sites looking for jobs or dates. It’s getting to be too much. I recently took myself off Twitter when I got a message that one of my contacts was going out for coffee! Do I really need to know that?”

Yet Taylor believes an outright workplace ban of the sites could have a detrimental effect. “If you’re in sales, recruiting, marketing communications, business development, or HR, you should be on LinkedIn,” says Taylor. “I’d even recommend making it your home page. You can find out what your competitors are doing, you can get timely news articles. You can constantly look for relevant events, candidates, business development partners, and so on. It’s a great business tool.”

Convinced that “old people need friends, too”? Here’s how to get started in the exciting world of online social networking:
  • Put some thought into your profile. Think of your profile as your résumé, especially on LinkedIn. Include all key industry buzz words that will attract prospective employers. And keep it short and to the point. Taylor advises: “Don’t have a three-page, general profile that will make people dizzy. The guy or gal who succinctly tells their story in good, solid business points is going to catch my attention faster than somebody who is writing a book.”

  • Use discretion. If you don’t want a particular bit of information to be public knowledge, don’t post it online. Keep in mind that your boss or someone he or she knows is probably in your network, so posts like “I hate my job” or “My boss is an idiot” aren’t a good idea. Young people especially need to understand the importance of discretion. Jacob Share, who writes the “Brazen Careerist” blog, recommends that job hunters Google themselves to see what employers will discover about them. Additionally, Share suggests, “Try to clean up any sites that will leave a negative impression and improve the sites that will leave a positive one.” Says Pollak: “Facebook is intended to be fun, but if you choose a profile picture of yourself in a bikini or passed out from drinking, you’re making a choice that is going to have consequences if you are actively looking for a job.”

  • Show your face. Use a photo to accompany your profile, preferably a simple headshot. It goes without saying that this isn’t the place to share your victory photo from a beer drinking contest at the local pub. Any respectable photo is infinitely more effective than Facebook’s default generic drawing that appears on profiles that lack personalized photos. If you don’t know how to upload a photo, ask a teenager or tech savvy friend to help.

  • Keep it fresh. Change your photo and status message once in a while to keep your profile fresh and as a simple way to connect with others. People in your Facebook network will receive a notification every time you update your photo or status. If you read an interesting article, post a link and share it with others in your network. If you’re working on an interesting project, let people know.

  • Reach out to others in your profession. Link to any professional associations you belong to and join online groups related to your industry. People often ask for information and advice in online forums; if you’re an expert in a specific area, share your knowledge. If you’ve written a cutting edge white paper, post it on your site. LinkedIn includes a “recommendation” feature. Write recommendations for colleagues you respect and ask them to do the same for you. All of these strategies will boost your professional credibility.

The bottom line is that social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn can serve as your personal PR firm—a hip and efficient way to promote your accomplishments and expertise to the world. They can help you find your dream job and help establish yourself as an expert in your field. They can also help you reconnect with people from your personal and professional past. And, they can be a lot of fun.

See you online!

Read a free excerpt from How to Succeed in Business Using LinkedIn, by Eric Butow and Kathleen Taylor (AMACOM 2009).

About the Author(s)

Shari Lifland is Editorial Communications Manager for American Management Association.  She is editor of the eNewsletters "Moving Ahead," "Management Update," and "Administrative Excellence," and manages content for the Members-only section of AMA's Website.