Five Tips for Smarter Social Networking

We are all trying to figure out how to get more value from online social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Most of us are just skimming the surface in terms of the potential these networks offer us as individuals. To realize this potential, we need to become more active orchestrators of our social networks, setting the tone and drawing out others.

Practices are still evolving, but here is some brief, and often contrarian, advice that comes from our decades of experience studying networks and the way people act within them:

1. Express more vulnerability. This flies in the face of much personal improvement and business school wisdom. We are taught to create "personal brands" that prominently feature our strengths and carefully hide our weaknesses. But trust requires vulnerability, so if you value trust in your social network, you might want to talk about some of the really difficult problems you are wrestling with and seek advice.

2. Mix professional and personal lives. We have also been taught to compartmentalize our professional and personal lives. Social networks will increasingly break down those walls. Again, the issue is trust. It is much easier to build trust if people have a more holistic view of who you are. Try mixing it up — you might be surprised by the results.

3. Provoke. In an effort to "win friends and influence people," we often bend over backwards to see the other side and temper our own statements to avoid upsetting people. It turns out that provocation does two things: it reassures people they are seeing the real you (assuming most of us have provocative views of one sort or another) and it helps stimulate other people to generate new insights. Of course, the key is to provoke in productive ways, but provocations can be a key to strong relationships.

4. Promote others. Too many of us approach social networks as a way to promote ourselves and our work. If that's all you are doing, it quickly turns people off. One important practice to develop is to promote others. Find people whose work and deeds you admire and promote the hell out of them — it will make them more successful and increase the desire of people to connect with you.

5. Actively seed, feed and weed. We are often taught that social networks are emergent and self-organizing — they take care of themselves. Baloney. Truly vibrant and growing social networks are carefully tended by the individual at the center of his or her network. These social networks require catalysts to expand — interesting people, ideas and conversation topics that can motivate people to connect with you and become more and more engaged. The people who contribute the most need to be recognized and rewarded. And the people in the social network who are generating negative energy and too focused on their own self-promotion need to be gently escorted to the exit.

Of course, individuals should tailor this advice to the specific circumstances of their work and employers. For example, legal or regulatory issues might preclude or restrict certain of these practices.

Come to think of it, we framed this advice with individuals in mind, but it applies just as much to institutions. Too many institutions still feel that the best course is to focus on strengths and carefully hide all vulnerabilities in all external communications. They scrub all public statements to avoid anything that would come across as provocative. When was the last time you heard a company promote the products or services of another company just because they are great, not because the company is a strategic partner or getting a commission of some sort? How many companies are actively weaving together an extended social network that embraces customers, a diverse set of their own employees and a broad array of third parties who can interact on a sustained basis around areas of mutual interest rather than simply buying or selling things from each other? If long-term trust-based relationships are important for institutions as well as individuals, perhaps the leadership team might want to test these five steps against its external social network platforms — that, if it has any external social network platforms.

What do you think? Is this advice sound? Do you have examples of where and how it has worked? What other practices would you add?

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