Oh, the beauty of social media. We know the benefits: reconnecting with old friends, engaging with colleagues, keeping up on news and brands, etc. With so many people at our digital fingertips, it's easy to forget critical etiquette when taking social networking into the living, breathing arena.
Sadly, the value of networking events and social media is being chipped away at by people who are forgetting how to just be people at events. Given that online social networking is now so driven, many live networkers attend with only the goal of hyping their own company or agenda, armed with a smart phone and a handful of business cards. This is appropriate sometimes, but as professionals, it’s up to us to maintain a level of social respect and integrity, understanding what type of networking event they are at, and, of course, acting appropriately.
While this is older, and exaggerated, it's still a funny example of how taking social networking into the real world can be a bit chaotic:
Now, with that out of the way, let's talk about how easy it is to blur the lines between in-person networking and online networking. Especially in the tech industry where social networking is so pervasive, people are constantly adding a slew of folks they "barely" know or merely know "through a friend" to their networks. This isn't a bad practice; it's one that's up to personal preference. But social network users have to keep in mind the different types of relationships that exist when going into a real-world environment.
There are three high-level types of relationships that one encounters at networking events:
The Social Friend: You can talk business but you also wouldn’t mind talking no business and catching up on personal stuff. Either conversation is acceptable.
The (Potential) Business Associate: You know it’s a good idea to introduce yourself, exchange information and connect online. If either of you are busy enjoying the non-business side of a conversation at an event, it’s more appropriate to connect with them later online. You have more of a chance of being productive in a business sense if you can respect other’s space.
The Industry Connector: This is the person in the room that everyone wants to speak with, and will even line up to speak with them. The best thing to do is to say a quick hello and move on, and then reconnect online. Do not back this person into a corner.
Beyond these relationships, here are a handful of tips:
1) Watch your boundaries -- both physical and conversational. Just because the two of you might get all squishy excited over a cute cat picture on a mutual friend page, does not mean that you should walk up and hug the person the minute you see them.
2) Do not have an agenda -- nothing is more annoying than the person who tries to manipulate and drive a casual networking conversation back to his or her sales pitch. Do not barge into a conversation by acting like you are interested in the conversation, only to change the subject and focus on you and your agenda at your first opportunity.
3) Don't go in with the expectation of "getting" something. Nothing will drive away a potential networking contact faster than you walking in and requesting they "do" something for you.
4) Give the other person space -- If there's something with whom you must make a connection, don't try to dominate their time. And don't physically run after them and try to go with them to their car when they try to leave.
5) Do not treat every event as a business opportunity. Sometimes tweetups and other events are not the right environment for business development. A charity event might be an example. When you go to a tradeshow you know you are doing business. When you are going somewhere with the sole purpose of joining others that are supporting cancer research, etc., it’s probably not a good place to start promoting your new book or Web site.
6) Be careful about meeting new people for the sake of meeting new people so that you can then meet more new people, as quickly as possible without regard for relevance. Your legitimate interest and ability to make something meaningful with a new person you’ve just networked with has its physical and mental limits. You can’t possible know enough to really care about or foster all 80 people you just met in a room and pretend that they were all meaningful to you. If you walk into a room shaking a bazillion hands and collecting business cards, the “good” people will catch on quickly and will compartmentalize you as a contact poacher.
Now, we’re bloggers and not networking experts by any means, but we’ve learned a few tricks of the trade by going to our fair share of events. The base lesson is that what may be OK online (for example, jumping into the middle of a Twitter or Facebook thread) does not always translate to the real-world. With its ability to make everyone hyper-connected, social networking has desensitized some networkers. It’s up to each individual to remember those personal boundaries for their own benefit, as well as the benefit of others at an event.