Here’s a status update that’s hard to ignore: Social networks and online apps are suddenly among today’s most popular communications tools, with over 1.23 billion people now logging in daily to connect with friends, family, and colleagues on Facebook alone.
But as we often forget, they’re also among the most public and visible of digital forums – and one in which it’s increasingly important that we comport ourselves professionally, as we now share them with friends, family, and colleagues the globe over. Likewise, from a career perspective, prospecting for sales or promotional leads and hunting for career-related opportunities rank among today’s most popular high-tech activities amongst working professionals in every field.
Which rules of conduct should you be following when connecting and communicating with others online, or reaching out regarding potential business opportunities via social networks? The answers may surprise you:
- Social networks may seem like informal settings, but they should be treated with the same respect as any public place of business. Professionalism is imperative — if you wouldn’t say it in a social or work setting, don’t say it online, in the most public of forums.Don’t forget to maintain a positive tone and attitude either: Negativity, complaints and condescending messages often reflect poorly on the poster. Poor spelling, punctuation, grammar and choice of words can also reflect poorly upon the individual – proofread all communications before sending. Shorthand, abbreviations and online slang should be avoided if possible, and used only in the most informal of conversations.
- Be advised that conversational nuances and subtle shifts in tone or personality may be lost in the translation to digital, and that individual users may interpret messages differently: Consider how posts will be read and perceived before sending. Note to outspoken individuals: Sharing extremely-opinionated viewpoints (e.g. political leanings or thoughts on controversial topics) can be a lightning rod online. Think twice before liking supporting status updates or posting such opinions, which can incite and aggravate others (and live on in perpetuity).
- Note that images can easily be taken out of context online as well: Posting embarrassing, revealing or negative photos of yourself should be avoided at all costs. Remember: Pictures you share may be taken at face value, and/or viewed as representative of your character – not to mention live on forever on the Internet. What seems cute in high school or college may not seem quite so endearing to potential employers.
- Before connecting with your colleagues on social networks, consider if you’d still want to be connected to them if they weren’t your coworkers, i.e. if you ever leave the position. Prior to requesting or accepting connections from colleagues, think about material you’re apt to share as well – is it appropriate for their consumption?Consider that connecting with colleagues and supervisors may expose you or they to information and influences that may make either party uncomfortable – be certain to understand the risk you’re taking in doing so.
- Avoid posting on social networks unless you have a tight grasp over your privacy settings, and are completely comfortable with the group of online friends that your updates will be shared with. Also note that anything shared online, although designated as private and confidential, has the possibility to become public at any time – if it’s best left unsaid, don’t say it.
- Understand that various online forums (social networks, blogs, digital communities) have their own rules of conduct, social norms and methods of interaction. Before utilizing one, take a moment to step back and observe how interactions take place, so you can discern appropriate rules of posting, sharing and behavior.
- Relationship or personal drama is best kept private. If you cannot resist the urge to share, do so sparingly – and in the most vague, unspecific terms possible – for the sake of involved parties, or friends uninterested or unwilling to participate in the situation. No such communications should be shared about other individuals and those involved in real-life situations without their advance permission.
- With rare exceptions, if a prospective online contact wanted to be pitched, you would already have their email address – contacting them out of the blue on social networks with a direct sales pitch is inappropriate.Instead, look for ways you might help support an organization, effort, topic, or project that the individual stands behind, and present an offer to do so, or find other positive ways to incentivize interaction and opportunities to get to know one another. For example, you might look for positive conversation starters – e.g. asking to feature an interview with them on your company blog or send a free copy of your business’ latest book – to begin the process of relationship building.
- Under no circumstances should you pitch a product, service, or prospective business opportunity on someone’s public wall or profile. Some users will, however, provide professional contact information on their public profile – using it to contact them may be acceptable in some cases, though reaching out via any personal contact details is not.
- Should you choose to email, keep communications short, and be sure to quickly get to the point, including a general summary and any key questions or queries in the first couple lines. Also be sure to include your name and contact information in all communications, and be respectful with e-mail and message signatures.Keep in mind that automatic signatures are OK, but shouldn’t be overly intrusive – a name, job title/business name, address, email address and phone number should provide enough room to get your point across. Anything more is overkill – inspirational quotes and rainbow colors included.
- Bear in mind that more employers and job recruiters are turning to online search engines to research prospective partners and hires – be aware of the results that come up, including potentially damaging or embarrassing content and links. It will help you in your efforts to build and maintain a positive online reputation to post helpful, high-quality content that’s of service to others, and do so frequently, so as to surface these time-, effort-, and energy-saving pieces more visibly in online search results.You know what they say about first impressions: The more positive and helpful the content that surfaces when others take the time to research you is, the better their initial takeaway will be.