Pressing the virtual flesh: Online networking can spur business

The challenging economy that communities such as northern Michigan are experiencing has helped legitimize at least one online activity: social networking. One web site in particular has emphasized the "networking" over the "social" and LinkedIn is becoming the online contact point of choice here.

"I use Facebook to keep up with friends and family," said CPA Sam Niemi, "but I use LinkedIn to gather business contacts. I let anyone whom I have met add me on Facebook, but I only let business acquaintances add me on Linkedin. It sets a tone that says, 'We're here for a purpose. We're here to discuss business.'"

Niemi works for Plante & Moran, a nationwide accounting and business advisory company with an office on Front Street in Traverse City. Besides having a profile on LinkedIn, he is also a member of several of the site's online groups. He joined the Plante & Moran group, which allows him to keep up with the activities of the firm's 1,600 other employees, and he's a member of the group established for the Grand Traverse Bay chapter of ConnecTech. That group was founded by another Traverse City professional, attorney Enrico Schaefer, who in turn invited his partner Brian Hall to join, as well as Niemi, and representatives from Traverse Labs, Dennis, Gartland, & Niergarth, and the NETech Corporation. Each of these people joined and invited others.

"I joined LinkedIn because I was invited," said Mary Gillett of Dennis, Gartland and Niergarth. "As a baby boomer that certainly predated the MySpace and Facebook era, I'm trying to learn how to use LinkedIn better, personally as well as professionally."

Founded way back in 2003, LinkedIn has boosted its roster to almost 30 million subscribers across the U.S. and beyond, including northern Michigan, spurred on by the need for new ways to network. Locals say that LinkedIn is to business professionals what MySpace is to teenagers, and Facebook is to families: an online destination for staying in touch and listing accomplishments without seeming self-important.

Niemi is certainly onto something. Last month the Small Business Association (SBAM) of Michigan did a report on how professionals in the state get their information. What they found was that networking sites like LinkedIn are "imperative" to success as long as the information is properly vetted.

"As social media continues to develop, people are learning how to use it as an effective business tool," according to SBAM. "Social media is more than just facts and numbers. They are opinion, analyses and contain a more personal touch, enabling people to engage in online dialogue through comments and posts, which makes information less objective. It is important for small business owners to learn how to filter the vast amount of information they will come across to find what is meaningful to them."

One way to do that is to simply read the full profile of anyone you associate with on any networking web site, and pay careful attention to post only the information you're comfortable with being made public. Especially on business-theme sites, maintain a professional demeanor online, the same way you would in person.

"A LinkedIn profile contains more educational and employment information, allows for membership in groups, and displays recommendations for an individual's work in a particular capacity," explained Traverse City attorney Brian Hall. "It does not contain the pictures, music, and other information that some of the social networking sites contain. My personal belief is that LinkedIn is for your professional life while the others, such as Facebook, are for your personal life."

Hall, a partner in the firm Traverse Legal, cautioned against getting too personal on either type of networking site, either business or social, because the two can, and do, overlap.

"We have received inquiries regarding the posting of information online and a third party's use of that information," Hall said. "It is not uncommon for prospective employers or educational institutions to further investigate a candidate's fitness for a particular position."

"Moreover," continued Hall, "investigators can use the information posted online to learn more about a person, for whatever reason necessary. In fact, in several matters we have learned more about our opponent (i.e. the plaintiff or defendant) through these social media sites."

Certain information that may seem innocuous at the time you post it could come back to haunt you later on. Hall's advice? "When in doubt, do not post it on your social networking site!"

If you're ready to get started, the basic membership is free, with add-ons available for a fee. There's an easy-to-use learning center at learn.linkedin.com. Start by reading through the New User Guide. Keep in mind that you are always in complete control over what others see on your profile, so take some time to re-live your past and current accomplishments and goals and post them as you build your profile. General questions are posed in many disciplines. Once you get comfortable, consider sharing your knowledge in the "Answers" section.

"The most beneficial aspect of LinkedIn is the "Answers" section," said Hall. "You can subscribe to particular areas of interest or expertise. As attorneys, we subscribe to the legal sections, such as intellectual property. Not only is the information provided helpful to those posting the questions, but it is not uncommon to receive a follow-up directly from the poster which may lead to new business."

Online social and business networking sites such as LinkedIn are one additional way that the Internet is dissolving physical borders, says Hall's partner in Traverse Legal, Enrico Schaefer.

"It allows you to extend you borders beyond geography and create relationships with like-minded people within your niche regardless of location," he says. "Networking websites such as LinkedIn will only become more valuable over time." BN

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