Facebook for Professional Networking: Reap the Benefits, Avoid the Traps!

by David Bohl

In terms of professional networking, Facebook can be a Godsend or a detriment, depending on how you use it. If you’re looking to expand your business circle via Facebook, by all means go for it! But just know that there are certain unspoken rules of conduct that can make or break the experience. Below you’ll find some suggestions that I learned about the hard way:

1. Don’t get sucked in by time suckers! Time suckers can be people, or they can be applications, or they can be both. For example, I’ve found that if you make a daily habit of passing Lil Green Patch plants back and forth on Facebook, you’ll find that a good chunk of your productive time is lost.

Wouldn’t it just be a lot better (and more fun), to dig a REAL “lil green patch” right in your own back yard? The point is, know the difference between an investment in time (taking a moment to converse with someone new on a topic of value) versus a time-waster (adding 20 friends each day, but never bothering to introduce yourself or see what they’re up to/into).

2. Strike a balance between professional and personal. If you’ve given clients access to your Facebook page, but you’ve also got every person you’ve ever dated on there, plus your first grade teacher and your dear old Aunt Myrtle, there may be occasional uh-oh moments when some information about you slips out that you’d rather certain people not learn about.

Sure, it may be fun to post those outrageous photos of your first frat house kegger, but if you know that your colleagues would not hold you in quite the same regard upon viewing these, then you may want to think twice. Another option is to take advantage of the “Make Private” feature that comes with every photo album. Granted, such precautions take time, and we discussed in point 4 that Facebook frequently results in lost time. So use your discretion about what you share and with whom!

3. Limit the number of times you log in per day. You might be worried that you’re missing out on something, or that someone is trying to reach you on Facebook and how will you know if you don’t log in? There are ways to combat this, of course.

First, make it very clear ON YOUR PAGE that if people need to contact you, they should please email you at (your email address). There are a number of spots where you can leave this message, including your status update, your contact info, your Personal Information, and especially that handy little box in the left-hand sidebar where you can basically write whatever you want. Second, put a stop to those pesky Facebook alerts that quickly stack up in your email inbox (more on that in Point 4).

4. Re-route your Facebook email alerts. Instead of having Facebook updates pouring into your work email and rendering you utterly useless for a major portion of your day… designate a “junk email address” for this purpose. If you don’t have a junk email address, open a new account with Yahoo, Hotmail or Gmail and then configure your FB account so the new alerts arrive there.

Next, to further eliminate unnecessary temptation, go to the Facebook Preferences area, and uncheck all the boxes that have you receiving email alerts every time one of your friends sneezes. You don’t need to read every single response on the chain of comments that have accumulated beneath your pal’s rodeo-themed birthday party. You don’t need to log in and find out for certain what time people are planning to hit the hay!

For your sanity and your future, I would advise you strongly against allowing a running Facebook-themed commentary to drive your every action (or should I say inaction, since you will inevitably accomplish nothing while hooked up to this productivity and energy sucker!).

5. Juice up your professional profile. Even if you don’t own your own business, the idea that Facebook might put you in touch with your future employer, someone who may one day want to outsource work to you, or even just professional people who may have answers to your questions is far more important than knowing who joined the I Love Bacon fan club.

You should be thinking of Facebook not only as a fun place to connect, but also as an excuse to market your professional skills. Take some time to write up a career profile for yourself, explaining your talents and abilities, what skills you have been formally trained in, and what your career aspirations are for the future. Also share a bit about yourself – your musical interests, your hobbies and so forth, to add a bit of levity and human interest – the crowd-wow factor. Know, though, that the professional part is really what’s going to help people take you seriously!

6. Don’t feel pressured into doing anything you don’t want to do. Everybody has their own ideas on what Facebook should be used for. Some people just go on a friend-adding rampage in the hopes that they’ll get that big career break or make that big sale. Others refuse to let anyone other than people who they personally know view their page. Some folks make a big deal of clicking on those little gifts and things that go to charitable causes. (I’m still not exactly sure how that works, but my feeling is that if you’re in a charitable mood, there are tons of things you can do in the real world, like volunteering at a soup kitchen, donating a portion of your business proceeds to a worthy cause, or ditching plastic bags at the grocery store in the effort to go green.)

Still others are sharing photos of their kids (no big deal to some, but very personal and “risky” to others!), passing out “drinks” to help their friends get “virtually intoxicated” and updating their status multiple times per day. If the action doesn’t align with your values or your comfort level, then don’t feel pressured to jump on the bandwagon. Nobody’s twisting your arm to join the Bible Verses Club, and nobody can force you to be their FB friend if you don’t feel comfortable doing so.

7. Avoid spamming people if at all possible. Those who use Facebook as a marketing vehicle, beware the temptation to spam your pals! Sure, we all get excited when we’ve created a new program, discussion group or what-have-you. But think about how irritating it is to get emails that you didn’t sign up for. That’s as big of a problem on Facebook – and furthermore, once your Facebook inbox starts filling up with messages from all kinds of marketers, it makes it that much more difficult to dig through and locate that “one real message” that contains somewhat important information.

8. Erect boundaries so you don’t end up on the 12-step Facebook Recovery Program! If you’re starting to feel like a Facebook junkie, not to worry… there are now groups forming on Facebook to address the very problem of Facebook addiction! Good news for all of us: with just a few little Jedi Mind Tricks, this is something we can all get better control of.

For one thing, there’s no need to connect Facebook to your mobile phone or Blackberry. Instead, try paying attention to more important things when you’re out and about, like whether there’s a car coming or if the guy in the stadium seat next to you might be leaning over to pick your pocket.

Whatever you do, try not to get too caught up in the alternate universe that is Facebook… keep it light yet professional. Take the time to get to know people, and have FUN.

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