According to Forrester Research, 75 percent of U.S. adults online now use social tools to connect with each other, compared with just 56 percent in 2007.
I'll count myself as a first mover. One of my first forays into social networking was through blogging. At the time, I worked for a large company, and I was trying to encourage the marketing group to start a blog. I decided it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission, so I started a blog on Google's Blogger service. This leads to my first piece of advice: know your company's policies. I was told that if I didn't take down that early blog, I'd be terminated.
A few years later, after starting my own company, one of the first things I did was start the Hub Designs Blog on WordPress.com. Through the service, people read, comment, suggest ideas for new articles and submit their own writing in guest articles. It has led me to a lot of new contacts and rich relationships that I wouldn't have formed any other way. Thoughtful, consistent blogging is the best way to establish yourself as an expert and build your personal brand.
I joined LinkedIn in December 2003 and have worked hard at professional networking ever since. I keep my LinkedIn profile up to date, and when I meet someone, I usually send a follow-up note and connection request so we're able to stay in touch. I recommend people I've worked with when they've done a good job. I've joined several LinkedIn groups relating to master data management.
I'm more reluctant to do any professional networking on Facebook. I try to keep my business life on LinkedIn and my personal life on Facebook. Most of my extended family is on Facebook, plus people with whom I went to high school and college, plus sailing friends and people from my hometown. For me, Facebook isn't much of a place to do business.
Twitter was one of 2009's biggest social networking stories, with widespread adoption among news organizations, celebrities and regular people. I started using Twitter in 2008, but it took me a while to get the hang of it. I use Twitter as a microblogging platform, to post short updates about what I'm doing and to send people to my blog for longer articles. I've found the 140-character limit makes my writing more concise.
When I was looking to order a USB drive with my firm's logo on it for distribution at a trade show, I simply sent out one tweet, and a day later, two different companies had submitted bids, with the winning bidder going out of its way to ship the drives to my hotel room the night before the show started. So Twitter has become almost a "human Google" for me. When I want to know something or find something, most of the time, I start by asking my Twitter followers.
In October 2009, Twitter released list functionality that allows users to create groups of people they follow. For example, I've set up a list of about 100 people I follow who are interested in MDM and data quality.
There are smaller social networks too. Having stumbled across Ning, described as a "social network in a box," I decided to give it a try, and I created the MDM Community as an experiment in November 2008. Through word of mouth and mentioning it on Twitter and on my blog, this community has now grown to more than 210 members from more than 23 countries. People ask one another questions, form friendships, write blog entries and engage in forum discussions. There are groups devoted to the pharmaceutical industry and job openings, listings of upcoming MDM events and a white paper library. It's a vendor-neutral online community of MDM practitioners.
My advice based on these experiences is to think first about what you want to achieve through social networking. Perhaps you want to grow your personal brand, to expand your professional network for a potential job search or to increase your access to subject matter experts in certain areas.
Second, think about the mix of different social networking avenues available. Talk to your peers and find out what's working for them. Strongly consider starting with a blog.
Third, whichever networks you select, find ways to coordinate them. For example, my Twitter activity automatically updates my status on LinkedIn, Plaxo and Facebook. So with one update, I can let everyone know that there's a new article available on my blog. As a result, social networking now accounts for more than 15 percent of the traffic to the blog.
Finally, don't be afraid to experiment. Don't risk your job, but don't hesitate to be an early adopter. By trying LinkedIn in 2003 and Twitter in 2008, I got to experiment before they became mainstream hits. Now, they're part of how I do business, and they've helped me a lot more than if I was just adopting them today.