Expanding Your Personal Network Online

Now that the four-year career is a growing reality for many workers—4.4 years in the United States to be exact—a person's online network is key when searching for a new job or drumming up new business. In fact, according to a recent Jobvite survey, more than 92 percent of companies in the United States used social networks to find talent in 2012 .

With so much emphasis on your online network and personal brand, understanding how to leverage the power of social media is a skill worth learning. While digital disruption has hurt some industries, such as print publishing, never before has an individual worker had so much power and access to start a business, thanks to innovative technologies such as social networking, e-commerce, crowdsourcing, and mobile applications, to name a few.

So, whether you're looking for a traditional four-year gig or you're pursuing your dream as an entrepreneur, success depends on who you know. In the online space, here are some helpful tips to kickstart your networking:

Set a daily connection goal. In a recent NPR interview about the importance of networking, the President of Career Horizons suggests that it's important to make 100 new contacts every month While Matt Youngquist recommends doing everything from making phone calls to knocking on doors, for today's Web-savvy networker, your first point of contact will likely be online. It's a good idea to focus on making new daily connections on a couple of social media platforms, such as Twitter and LinkedIn. For example, aim to follow five interesting new people on Twitter every day, but don't stop there. While following a contact is the first step, building a relationship takes time. This means reaching out to make a comment on a tweeter's update, retweeting their content, and helping them in any way possible if they have questions online. On LinkedIn, upgrading to a paid account can be an excellent way to grow your network since you'll be able to send messages directly to a person even if that person is not in your network. Moreover, you can see who has viewed your profile and perhaps follow up with them with a quick and relevant message. You can even write a custom message when reaching out to a new contact, instead of relying on the pre-loaded content.

Spruce up your online profile(s). If you still have a Santa hat on your social network photo in March or a shamrock on your chest in May, you can do better. Too many people forget to update their bios and photos on a regular basis, but doing so can keep your personal brand fresh (use a tool such as PicMonkey, to design professional profile pics and headers in a pinch). We know that many business professionals check you out online before reaching out, so don't make them work harder than they should. Within each online profile you should have a clear description of what you do, even if it's just a few words, a professional profile photo, and a link to your website. Don't have a website? Check out the next tip.

Build a good-looking (and easy-to-update) website. It's a good idea to plant some digital seeds online beyond social networking sites. If you're strapped for time, consider an About.me page. It just takes a few minutes and the design always looks great. Using a tool such as Wordpress, you can craft your own content (think blog posts) and retain ownership to everything you put there (while social networking websites are a must for anyone looking to build a network online, these companies often change just how much of your content they own without your approval).

Listen more than you talk. Keep a watchful eye (or active ear) on what's happening in your online community. If you're using Gmail, there are a number of tools, such as Rapportive, that make it easy to monitor what the people in your largest social network (your email account) are doing in the digital space. Services like this will highlight Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn updates from a contact so you can get context about them before you write.

Set recurring business goals. While bragging about your Klout score might feel good, it's not enough to help you bring in new business. Sure, you might have 5,000 followers on Twitter, but how you're connecting with these people is a more important sign of your success. Remember this quote from John Munsell, the CEO and co-founder of Bizzuka: "If content is king, then conversion is queen." Whether you're selling yourself, a new book, or a product, don't just reach out for the sake of sexy stats; have a reason and a strategy behind your digital actions. (Be sure to track your success so that you know what works and what doesn't.)

About the author

A video personality and blogger on FastCompany.com, and the emcee of Fast Company’s popular Innovation Uncensored event, Amber Mac is truly a voice of the Fast Company brand. In addition to her work with Fast Company, she is a bestselling author, tech, social media, and small business expert, TV and web video host, speaker, strategist, and entrepreneur.

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