A relatively new feature to LinkedIn is its Groups function, which allows members to share information around a common topic or interest. Set up a group for your company and invite customers and fellow employees to share tips and keep up to date on the latest news coming from your organization.
Facebook offers similar group and fan page (see Network World's Twisted Pair fan club) functions. Members can post comments, photos and more to the site. One caveat to Facebook groups is a lack of notification when something new is published. You have to check back often to see if anything new or interesting is published.
It's not all about your employer. All social networks blur the line between work and personal, which means you can use these networks to build your own brand.
"There's an opportunity lost by not being on the larger social networks," says Dan Schawbel, a social media specialist at EMC and author of the upcoming book on personal branding titled "Me 2.0". "People are already searching for other people. Recruiters are looking to fill a void. If they don't come across your name, you'll miss out."
Schawbel equates one's presence on social networks as a living resume that can show both your professional skills as well as everything else you do in life. "You're painting a picture of who you are," he says.
Search engine optimization techniques help put company sites higher up in search results pages. Schawbel says you can use similar techniques to improve your search engine ranking by linking your multiple social profiles together. This is particularly important on Twitter and LinkedIn, where your information is more easily trolled by search engine crawlers. If you have a blog, make sure your various profiles link to it, thereby increasing your search engine worthiness. Facebook is a walled garden and the information within is not as easily indexable, but is nonetheless valuable because it can function as a "mailing list" when you're looking for a job or opportunity.
Building such a network does not happen overnight and should be done over time. "If you forge the relationship over time, then you are seen as a contributor to the community so more people are apt to help you out," Schawbel says.
On the flip side, the blurring of the personal/business boundary in social networks can have negative ramifications if the wrong things are posted. Common sense advice from Nina Buik, president of HP's Connect user community: "Look ahead 10 years from now, whatever you post on [a social network] now; will you be happy with in 10 years?"
Get answers to questions
Got a technical question that needs answering? If you have a big enough following on Twitter or Facebook and/or belong to certain groups on LinkedIn, posing your question to these groups can be a timesaver.
"2,200 people are following me in some way and any given time I put something out there, some percentage of those folks are paying attention and may answer," says Dan York, director of emerging communications technology at Voxeo. He adds that he can save hours of time by posting a question to his Twitter network, which helped him solve a vexing Wordpress mirroring issue recently.
Social networks can also be used to get a feel for how different industries handle technical and business issues. "I am very interested to get the CIO perspective from outside the legal environment," says Jeffrey Brandt, chief information and knowledge officer at the Washington, DC-based law firm Crowell & Moring. Brandt belongs to a number of knowledge management and CIO-related groups on LinkedIn and finds "a lot of people's thought processes are amazing."
Keep up with news/trends
RSS feeds getting to be too much? Twitter and its many associated applications can help you keep tabs on the world around you or at least direct your attention to what is most important.
"It's an attention lens for me," York explains. "I follow a certain number of people that I have deemed to be authorities in their realms, so their links are of interest to me."
Many news sites offer Twitter feeds as a way to catch up on headlines of the day without having to browse a site or delve into an overflowing RSS reader. "I saw Nortel was filing for bankruptcy first on Twitter," says Wayne Bogan, CTO of Spirit Telecom in Columbia, SC., who has his BlackBerry set to check his Twitter feed once per minute to stay in tuned to what is happening.
During a December 2008 ice storm that knocked power out to more than 300,000 customers, Public Service of New Hampshire (twitter: @psnh) used Twitter to deliver status updates on how many customers were still without power and the progress that was being made. For those with limited 'net connections, the updates proved invaluable.
Social networks can also be used to keep tabs on your vendors. Brandt, who takes great care of his LinkedIn "Rolodex", caught a vendor off guard when he asked them who his new sales person was after the last one left. Brandt noted the departure through a change in the person's LinkedIn status. The vendor, it seemed, did not know the guy had left.
You don't have to be on a social network 24 hours a day to enjoy the benefits. Keeping your profile up to date on LinkedIn, staying in touch with former colleagues on Facebook and jumping into the occasional conversation on Twitter is enough to build your social network persona and might find you that perfect hire for a job opening or provide the answer to a vexing question.
This story, "Tweet to compete" was originally published by Network World.