[The following column originally appeared in print in May 2008. I am republishing it as part of my continuing effort to maintain an archive of my published columns. Important note: I have not updated this since its original publication. While most of the sites remain as described, some may have changed. All information was current as of the date of original publication.]
At a recent panel I was on about social networking for lawyers, one participant told of his success with the professional networking site LinkedIn. Within a few weeks of joining, he had made several fruitful connections, including one with a former classmate who is now the GC at a company his firm had courted. Thanks to LinkedIn, the courtship became a long-term relationship.
Stories of instant success are rare among lawyers using social-networking sites. But instant success is rare for any form of marketing. Of greater interest is the longer-term, cumulative value of these sites. With their enrollments growing by leaps and bounds, you should be a prominent member of the club.
For all their hype, social-networking sites are just glorified directories – the 21st Century version of the phone book or the legal directory. But unlike their forbears, these directories give you far more control, enabling you to tailor your listing and manage your network in ways no traditional directory ever could.
Some question the value of professional networking sites, given that a critical mass has yet to join them. To my mind, avoiding social networking until it becomes widespread makes no more sense than waiting to launch a blog until everyone else has one. Would you rather lead the pack or trail behind it?
This two-part column will provide an introduction to some of the leading social-networking sites. This month, I discuss three “general-interest” sites – ones open to all comers. Next month, I will review sites that focus membership on legal professionals.
Three Degrees of Separation
While all of these sites are for networking, some cater to professional networking and others to social networking. Among the former, the leading site is LinkedIn. It claims an international membership of more than 20 million professionals from some 50,000 companies.
With his 1990 play and later movie, Six Degrees of Separation, John Guare popularized the idea that we are all connected through the networks of people we know. LinkedIn is built on that concept, although it reduces the degrees of separation to three.
When you create a profile on LinkedIn, it becomes the hub of your network, allowing you to connect with other professionals and them with you. Your network consists of the people you connect with directly, their connections and their connections’ connections, so that you are always within three degrees of connecting with anyone else.
Within your network and your extended network, you can mine for potential clients, service providers, subject experts and other contacts. You can also search for business opportunities and for jobs or job candidates. You can directly communicate with your first-degree contacts and, through them, request introductions to others.
What you get out of LinkedIn will turn on what you put into it. As soon as you sign up, add as many contacts as possible and continue to add more from then on. In addition, enhance your profile in other ways, such as by joining groups, endorsing other members, and posting or answering questions within your network.
LinkedIn costs nothing to join. Paid accounts offer extra features and options, but are not necessary to benefit from the site’s basic networking tools.
Finding Friends on Facebook
In contrast are sites where the emphasis is on “social.” The first of these was Friendster, launched in 2002, followed soon after by MySpace. But the one attracting the most buzz generally and among legal professionals is Facebook.
Launched as a virtual hangout for college kids, Facebook is on track to have the largest and most diverse membership of any such site by year end. As a social networking tool, Facebook is powerful. You can build networks around locations, interests, schools, companies or whatever. You can chat, share photos and videos, post bulletin-board style messages, play games, coordinate calendars and even advertise.
But for professional networking, Facebook falls short. One reason for this is that, unlike other sites, it hides your full profile from anyone you have not designated a “friend.” Since joining, I have connected with a number of friends, but they are all friends I already knew – all connections I already had through LinkedIn.
Facebook is adding features to make itself friendlier for businesses. For example, businesses can now sponsor custom pages that focus on their products or services. But its strength is in maintaining existing connections, not building new ones.
Feeling the Plaxo Pulse
A hybrid between professional and social networking is Plaxo. At its core, it is a contacts manager. But over the past year, it has reinvented itself. Once primarily used for updating Outlook, it is now a multifaceted tool for managing, tracking and networking with contacts across multiple platforms.
Where LinkedIn’s emphasis is on expanding your network, Plaxo’s is on strengthening it. It does this through two primary methods, synchronization and sharing.
Its cross-platform sync feature lets you tie together all your address books. Plaxo syncs with Outlook, Google, Yahoo!, AOL, Mac OS X, Hotmail and LinkedIn, as well as with mobile devices. It does the same with most calendar applications.
Sharing is where Plaxo shows its social networking side. With your address book as the launching point, you can connect with the people you know who are also using Plaxo. Once connected, any changes they make to their contact information is updated in your Plaxo address book and synchronized with your Outlook and other address books.
In addition, through a feature called Plaxo Pulse, it keeps you up to date with your contacts’ other activities. As your contacts update their status on Twitter, post items to their blogs, or add photos to Flickr, their updates appear on your Pulse stream.
You can also create a public profile for yourself and merge into it any of your own external feeds as a single stream. That way, someone viewing your profile will see the universe of your current activity online.
Of the three, LinkedIn is the stronger marketing tool. Facebook is a fun way to keep in contact with your circle of friends and colleagues. Plaxo is a sure route to maintaining your contacts over the long haul.
All rights reserved. Copyright 2008 Robert J. Ambrogi