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The Unwritten Rules of Social Networking

Is your social networking strategy actually costing you customers? Use these strategies to get it right.

Drumming up a fan base on MySpace, LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter isn't as simple as sending out friend requests. To find followers, you need to create threads and promote products on social sites. To do so, there are a few unwritten rules of etiquette you should know. Master the etiquette so you can stop sending Super Pokes and start winning over your connected consumers.

Be Patient

It's hard to feel competitive when you're comparing your 50 friends to someone's 5,000, but if you take it slow as you build your social content, you'll fare better in the long run. Don't request friends blindly.

"In most cases, there is no viable mass adding strategy for companies," says Joel Postman, principal of Socialized, a social media consultancy for businesses. "To start off, follow a few people, get referrals and create a network that's useful to you as a businessperson."

Also resist the urge to ask all your contacts to join your network. Tom Lewis, vice president of marketing for imaging toolkits and applications provider Atalasoft, imported his Gmail contacts into Facebook and then asked them all to friend him, sending messages to professional contacts as well as people he didn't know very well. Big mistake. He issued a mea culpa message afterward, calling it a "definite mistake." A better idea is to announce social networks on your site, in your newsletter, or in an e-mail signature, and let contacts come to you.

Be Inclusive

Just because you shouldn't be sending out friend requests to everyone in your address book doesn't mean you should be shy about connecting with networkers that come to you. Don't take a chance on alienating potential customers.

"So long as it's not a spam request from a porn site or get-rich-quick scheme, I will friend anyone who appears to be a real person," Postman says. "For a business, you have to accept every live person because you run the risk of offending a customer."

Be on Message

Once connected, keep your connections' sensibilities in mind. One evening, Brooke Webb, marketing and PR director at Vicinity Manufacturing, started posting to Twitter after a failed client dinner and a few cocktails. She says, "I tweeted several messages that compared my clients and their cities to the adventures of Dante in The Inferno. You know, seventh-circle-of-hell references, and so on."

Even worse, her Twitter account posted to her LinkedIn so all her professional contacts could see what she had written. Webb has since learned to keep her Twittering professional, using it for her company's customer service and encouraging clients to reach out to her directly. She also posts about social media and has some much tamer personal posts.

Your online presence is a very visible part of your brand, so make sure what you say and do online reflects your company's culture. If you're comfortable joking around or sharing details about your personal life, go for it, but as a general rule, Postman says to ask yourself "How would I behave I weren't online?"

Though there's a delete button for a social slip-up, you may never be able to completely fix a misguided communiqu?. Last summer, SocialMedian CEO Jason Goldberg Twittered about raising angel investment for his company, possibly running afoul of securities regulations. He tried deleting the Tweet, but in moments, it was captured, published and lambasted on TechCrunch and other blogs.

Be Transparent

When filling out your profile, don't copy and paste your white paper--a few sentences will do. Show some personality by sharing information under your interests, but if you're more comfortable keeping things strictly business, relate everything back to your core message. Also, don't add any Facebook applications your contacts need to add to see--they look unprofessional and can annoy your network. Take charge of your online persona by posting a profile image. If your account is under your name, use a headshot; if your account is your business name, opt for a logo. If you've hired a community manager to handle your accounts, give some information on your site about that person, as well. And always include two-way links, from your social site to your website and vice versa, to help people quickly find and vet you.

Be Tactful

To get some business out of your social networks, it's best not to immediately send new friends offers to download an e-book or to sign up for a newsletter. Be more subtle. Work your promotion into your everyday conversations by telling people about upcoming conferences, responding to questions in your field, or pointing out new and relevant blog posts.

As a general rule, try to match the way your contacts interact with you. Respond to a wall post with a wall post and a message with a message. Most other communication should be done via more passive Twitter or status updates. Postman says, "What works is being genuine, not being a hype machine."

Be Alert

To improve your brand standing, search for complaints or problems about your business, and respond in a helpful way, without necessarily adding the person as a contact. For example, Comcast has a ComcastCares account on Twitter that responds to complaints and provides customer service right in the platform. By empowering a community manager to listen and respond to complaints, you're taking a big step toward winning over customers.

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