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The Social Network

by Lucia Patalano
While business professionals are networking with LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, don’t count out the long-standing business card cocktail mixer just yet.

There’s no doubt that social media enables an entrepreneur to reach a wider audience than the standard business-before-breakfast event, but local networking experts agree there is no substitute for the one-on-one connection. That’s not to say, however, that one is more important than the other; the key is to blend both old and new in order to build a meaningful Rolodex.

“Nothing can replace that face-to-face meeting,” says Les Vail, president and CEO of the Gloucester County Chamber of Commerce, which hosts more than 40 networking events annually. “No technology can replace going to dine with somebody and getting to know them, reading their expressions, seeing their mannerisms and just truly developing that long-term relationship.”

The face-to-face component is important, Vail says, because it’s the best way to reap the ultimate goal of networking, which is relationship building. That’s the premise behind many professional networking groups such as South Jersey Women in Business (SJWIB), which hosts bi-weekly meetings to promote long-term business relationships among its members. SJWIB President Colette A.G. Taylor, a tax professional in Barrington, says although she networks regularly via LinkedIn and Facebook, getting to know someone in person builds trust, which goes a long way in forging strategic relationships.

“I think the immediacy of face-to-face [networking] brings much better connections between people,” Taylor says. “You ask and answer much more personal questions. I understand more who you are and what you stand for, your values. That helps me to decide whether I’m going to recommend you to someone else or use you myself.” And, Taylor jokes, “There’s no stress about spelling or punctuation that you might have in social networking.”

Nevertheless, with a plethora of business networking events available each month, it’s easy to become lost in a sea of cocktail parties and business card overload. Locals stress the key to building upon contacts made during a face-to-face exchange is to continue to develop those relationships after the event ends. And that’s where social media, with its far-reaching breadth, can play an important role.

“The person with the most cards at the end of the night doesn’t win,” says Vail, who uses LinkedIn every day to discern possible new connections and how he may help them. “More importantly, once you walk out of that particular event, what do you do? Are you following up, are you doing everything that you say, and are you continuing to reach out to develop that new relationship that you just made?”

Follow-up is critical. After making a new contact, he suggests you send the person an e-mail or handwritten note, thanking them for their time and perhaps offering them some useful information, such as an article, an invite to a future event, or the name of an industry group they may find helpful. In building the relationship, the key is to give and not take. Above all, be proactive in making contact and developing a strategic partnership.

“Reach out and say, ‘Why don’t we meet for coffee, lunch, a walk in the park, whatever,” suggests Taylor. “Once you reach out, they’ll come back to you, too.” Adds Vail, “Networking is relationship building. Don’t become a pest, but at the same time, don’t become out of sight and out of mind.”

Face-to-face networking becomes even more powerful when combined with high-tech social networking tools. What social networking gives you that traditional business networking events cannot, experts contend, is quick and easy access to a much wider network.

“It’s not just by meeting those specific people. It’s by then forming a relationship with those people and therefore having access to their whole network,” says Marisa Tkachuk, president of LeTip, of Cherry Hill, a networking group that meets once a week. “Social networking can introduce you to a much broader group of people.”

Take LinkedIn, which allows you to perform searches by individual or company. Years ago while working at a New York City tech startup, Jody Raines, now president of Voorhees-based Webmarcom, an Internet strategy agency, wanted to do business with a multi-million dollar company. After performing a search on LinkedIn, she discovered she was “two degrees of separation away from the senior vice president of new technology” for the company, but the “gatekeepers” would make it impossible to reach him in person or on the phone. So she decided to ask her contact on LinkedIn for an introduction.

“He graciously wrote a very kind letter and forwarded it to his connection, and she graciously wrote a very kind letter and forwarded to the gentleman that I was trying to get to, and he responded,” Raines recalls. “We wound up doing business with that company and, in fact, I’m still in touch with the gentleman.”

In using social media to network, experts stress you must avoid certain faux pas, the biggest being using the tool to solicit, sell or prospect. “You never want to be broadcasting or selling,” cautions Raines. “That’s a big, big, big no-no.” Rather, social networking should be reserved for people you already know, and an effective practice is to “engage,” to use the latest industry buzzwords with your contacts, which expands your network and helps to build relationships.

“If you’re on LinkedIn, don’t just be on LinkedIn. Engage, join a group or two, follow the conversations,” says Lisa Bien, president of Mount Laurel-based Bien Marketing Group, who networks daily using multiple social media outlets, tweeting industry news and participating in dynamic group conversations. “It keeps me fresh, and I get to engage with professionals all over the country in these great conversations,” she says. “You can build your network without leaving your laptop.”

Yet Bien also sees tremendous value in traditional networking. She belongs to several marketing and public relations organizations and attends at least one networking event each week in addition to bi-weekly gatherings with the South Jersey Round Table Group, a professional networking organization that meets in Voorhees. In navigating through the maze of networking events, she immediately reaches out to new contacts she acquires using LinkedIn, hoping to build a business relationship through a blend of traditional and high-tech approaches.

“I think it’s a combination,” she concludes. “I take a lot of what I’ve used from my traditional standard networking, and I apply it to social media.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 2, Issue 3 (March, 2012).
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