Done right, online networking will support your offline network, not replace it
In the old days, “networking” meant hours calling every contact in your Rolodex; paging through the directories of every professional organization you could join; going to breakfast seminars, lunch-time speaking events, happy hours and board meetings to press the flesh – anything to make real-time, one-on-one contact with someone who might know someone who might be hiring.
The tools of the networking trade are changing and moving online, where e-mail, IM and social-networking Web sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and some specific to industry and career are the means to make new contacts and interact with current ones.
A social-networking Web site is essentially a fancy, online address book that allows you to see what your contacts are doing and connect to their contacts. The medium allows users to quickly expand their reach, putting them in touch with industry allies and hiring managers miles from home and in different companies and verticals. It’s also an easy place to track relationships and promote yourself to a willing audience.
But how much use are online social networks to an executive seeking a job, and which ones are worth the effort?
“LinkedIn should be part of your strategy, but not in the way you might expect a good social-networking site to be,” said Robert Neelbauer, owner of StaffMagnet.com, a Washington, D.C.-based recruitment consultancy. Rather then sitting at your PC clicking your way to a new job, Neelbauer and career experts Ladders interviewed recommend a job seeker use Web sites as the launch pad for traditional social networking. Pressing the flesh and phone calls remain the most intimate way to bond with the contacts in your network.
“If you’re only looking at LinkedIn for lead generation or hunting down candidates for jobs, it’s a valuable tool,” he said. “But if you send a message to someone through LinkedIn, they may not respond to it for days or even weeks.”
Neelbauer is particularly critical of LinkedIn. Although a frequent user almost from its launch in May 2003, he complains that the site has become watered down by millions of users and thousands of recruiters who have flooded the system with resumes and job posts and fill their networks with contacts they barely know. Neelbauer said he prefers other sites, especially Facebook, which gives users much greater control over who is in their network and sees their information. Facebook therefore tends to make in-network contacts more immediate for members, he said.
Don’t ignore the Web
While online networking won’t replace the handshake, career experts caution anyone who discounts it entirely. Their role in job hunting specifically has become so central for recruiters and hiring managers that job seekers are severely handicapping themselves by not participating, Neelbauer said.
The Executive Job Market Intelligence Report 2008 from ExecuNet, an online recruitment aggregator, shows executive recruiters now fill 56 percent of jobs through networking; another 10 percent through their own online research; and 4 percent by searching Google, social networks and other sites for possible recruits from target companies. Of the 42 million U.S. members of Facebook, the most active social network, 18 million, almost half, are over 26 years old, according to The Social Times, a Web site that reports on social-networking companies.
“If you’re a recruiter and you’re not using LinkedIn and Facebook or Twitter, I don’t know what you’re using,” said Lindsay Olson, partner and recruiter at Paradigm Staffing. Olson said social networking plays at least some role in the hiring process for more than 60 percent of the positions she fills. “LinkedIn particularly is the first place people go to look for candidates. When I get a name, that’s where I look first to get a little more background on someone before I talk to them.”
Online social networking is to networking what e-mail is to handwritten letters: it’s just easier, faster and a lot more convenient, said Isabel Walcott Hilborn, owner of Strategic Internet Consulting, an online marketing consultancy, and founder of SmartGirl.com, a 200,000-member social network for teenage girls. Rather than meeting people one at a time at a conference to trade cards or calls once a year, social networks let you do something with those contacts, Hilborn said. Put those people in a social-networking list, and you have the opportunity to learn more about them and let them get to know you in a low-stress way.
“Social networking and marketing and job searching is all about getting yourself out there,” said Paul Gillin, a social-networking consultant at Paul Gillin Communications and author of “The New Influencers” and “Secrets of Social Media Marketing.”
“Friends’ networks can show you who’s changing jobs, which means a job just opened up at their old company that you can go for that hasn’t been posted yet. And (it) can help you get introduced to people closer to that job than you might have gotten otherwise.”
Three degrees of separation
Job seeker Jim Nash used LinkedIn not only to get a new job but to do it in a foreign field where he had relatively few direct contacts.
Nash has been a writer and editor at news, business and technology publications. He was the editorial director of NBC Universal’s Sci-Fi Channel Web site and a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune. But he wanted to follow his core interests into medical or science publishing, preferably with a nonprofit.
“I did know a few people at science publications, and that was helpful,” Nash said. “The good thing about social networking was that if I knew nobody in an industry, I could still look at all the people who were related to me and the people they knew to find people in the area I wanted so I could call them. I was casual about it but it was clear that I was looking, and almost everybody I approached was happy either to talk to me or introduce me to someone else.”
Nash landed his current job – Web managing editor at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York – through three degrees of separation. One of his contacts had introduced him to another contact, who introduced him to his boss. The employer educated Nash on how and where medical organizations might be able to use Web-publishing savvy and eventually hired Nash himself.
“Once we made that contact, it seemed like things moved really quickly,” said Nash, who started the new job in October. “I contacted my current boss as the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, and it just worked out.”
But not everyone is comfortable introducing themselves to strangers, even when the strangers are online and the job seeker has a lot of experience at marketing and selling. Susan, an UpLadder member who asked Ladders not to publish her full name, has a profile on LinkedIn but is reluctant to use it aggressively.
“The majority of people I know are not on it,” she said. “So the people that would be contacting me on it are not likely to be close colleagues. None of my friends are really using LinkedIn to find jobs, and people who want me to use it seem to want to use my contacts. It seems more a way for business building than for networking.”
Don’t ignore the real world
Doing it properly means marrying your offline network to your online network, said Hilborn.
Hilborn recommends a job seeker use the contacts he makes offline to build out his social network, but then return to the offline sources when it comes time to make a job connection. For instance, when you find a job, online or off, don’t just e-mail your resume or apply online, she said. “If you’ve taken the time to develop your network and keep those connections live, you can type in a keyword and find you have three friends who work there or know someone who does,” she said. ”Then you can write to your contact, ask if they’d forward this to their friend and ask her to submit your resume. It’s almost impossible for HR to ignore a resume that’s submitted from someone inside, and they usually get paid if they refer someone who gets hired, so it works out really well.”
Even an interview that doesn’t work out can extend your network and lead to opportunities you might not have had otherwise, Nash said.
“I’d always try to talk on the phone or meet people I made contact with,” he said. “If they didn’t have a job available, or it wasn’t a match for some reason, I’d ask if I could link to them on LinkedIn and look through their contacts so I could write back in a week or two and say, ‘Thanks for meeting with me; it was really great, and would you mind recommending me or introducing me to this other person?’ And they were almost always fine with that.”
It requires the same attention and interest in relationship building as traditional networking, Hillborn concluded.
“When someone changes their picture, you can comment on it, or when they put up a note about having had a hard day, you can commiserate or offer suggestions,” Hilborn said. “And if in the past you’ve sent three e-mails to Maria, you are on her radar screen, so when you send an e-mail to all your contacts saying your company is doing a round of layoffs and you’re on the list, she’s going to respond, where if you just had her business card, she wouldn’t even know.”
“Half an hour on Facebook once a week is all you’d need to keep that social network totally thriving,” she said. “You have to pick and choose the things (to which) you respond to make them personal. But tiny little outreaches are quick; they take time over the long term, but one at a time, they’re pretty quick. And it lets you stay in touch with a much larger community than you otherwise could.”
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