Back in the old days, when the primary form of networking was face to face, there were simple, universal standards that people used to judge you. Now, in the age of online networking, there is another set of rules, and not being aware of them can close you off from valuable opportunities.
For in-person networking, the rules are pretty much common sense. If you smell funky, dress sloppy, have bad breath or are unfriendly, you won't do very well at a networking event. Fortunately, there is a ton of information, from books to full courses, on how to be a good networker, so there really is no excuse for making mistakes that can turn you into a social pariah.
On the other hand, there aren't a lot of people talking about some online personal standards that are just as important, but perhaps not as obvious. It would be nice to think that people don't "judge a book by its cover," but that's just naive. Whether you're trying to connect with potential investors or looking for strategic partners, you have to know you're being judged at every turn.
And just as a slovenly personal appearance would cause someone to take you less seriously in person, there are reasons people will be less likely to make a meaningful business connection with you online. Here are five of them:
An amateur email address. I'm not trying to pick on anyone here, but if you still use an AOL email, you'd better work for them. Otherwise, it just isn't seen as professional. Frankly, it's the email equivalent of a polyester leisure suit.
Also, while Gmail is considered legit these days, just about any other free email service is not suitable for business. If you're using Hotmail or Yahoo! for business correspondence, it's time to make a switch. If you have a website (you do, don't you?), it's easy to set up an email address with that domain, and doing so will bring a much needed level of credibility to your business.
A ridiculous email signature. There are all kinds of powerful tools to create professional email signatures, and like anything powerful, they can be used for good or evil. It's a great idea to list your name, title and contact information in your email signature. Your company logo, if used properly, can be okay too. What is not a good idea is to use all bold, 16 point, blue type, a sales pitch, a giant logo and an emoticon reflecting your current mood (I've seen it!) in your signature. I'm not saying you have to be stuffy, but if you want to make a good impression, keep it professional.
A lame website. So, you've cleaned up your email, and it's coming from a real company domain. Good! You can bet anyone you're hoping to do business with is now going to click through to your website, and what they see is a reflection of you. The good news is that this piece really isn't as difficult as many think. With WordPress and thousands of quality templates available at low or no cost, there really is no reason anyone should have a crappy website. And many people will be reluctant to connect with someone who doesn't get that.
A less-than-complimentary online reputation. It has always been the case that a potential collaborator could ask around about you to get a feeling for your business style and reputation. Now people Google you, and they can get a lot more info. If you reach out to someone through LinkedIn, email or a contact form, you need to know that they're looking you up. And if what they find doesn't give them the right impression, you're not likely to make the connection you want.
Start by searching for your name and digging through the results. Then consider using something such as BrandYourself.com to help make sure your positive results are at the top and any negative results get buried. If you have some really bad stuff out there, it's worth hiring a reputation management firm to clean it up. It takes time, and it isn't cheap, but it can be worth it.
An unimpressive social media presence. During their online search for you, potential connections are bound to come across your social media pages as some of the top results in a name search -- if you have them. The more positive results you have pointing to your name, the better. So, first of all, be sure you do have a social media presence.
LinkedIn is the king of business-focused social media, but a complete (and active) profile on Facebook and LinkedIn is a minimum. (The nice thing about Facebook is that you can choose what people see and what is hidden. So if you don't want a business connection seeing those Christmas party pics from last year, you can easily hide them.) Using Twitter and Google Plus can help solidify your social media presence and show people that you understand the importance of social networking.
Any single one of these online persona faux pas (other than a bad reputation), might not be enough to turn someone off completely. But to maximize the impression you make when networking online, make sure they're all in check. If people still don't like you, well, that's a topic for another day.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
Matthew Toren is a serial entrepreneur, mentor, investor and co-founder of YoungEntrepreneur.com. He is co-author, with his brother Adam, of Kidpreneurs and Small Business, BIG Vision: Lessons on How to Dominate Your Market from Self-Made Entrepreneurs Who Did it Right (Wiley). He's based in Vancouver, B.C.