1. Decide if you need a separate professional social media account.
I encourage you to be thoughtful about what kind of content you want to present to colleagues and potential clients. Professional accounts are typically public, so you have a BIG audience and it’s hard to delete something once it is out in the world. For me personally, I have professional Twitter and Instagram accounts. Largely because, while I love sharing about aspects of my personal life (e.g., being a mom to a young child), I have chosen not to post my son’s picture and whereabouts on public social media accounts.
But there is not a right or wrong way to do this. I have seen many public health colleagues successfully have an account that presents a combination of their personal and professional lives. However, I have also seen some accounts (from students and seasoned professionals) that were incredibly disappointing and I unfollowed them quickly. For example, captions that bad mouthed their school or employer and people pushing multi-level marketing products trying to capitalize on their status as a public health or health education professional (which in some cases poses an ethical conflict).
The goal of social media is for your followers to know, like, and trust you. So plan accordingly.
2. Know when to be casual vs. formal.
One of the greatest things about social media is that it gives us direct access to public health colleagues and experts around the world. You can reach out to incredible professors and researchers through tweets and direct messages.
BUT- I think this direct access and connection on social media can (falsely) give the impression that you know someone more than you actually do. Or that you are “friends” even though you’ve never met. And I think that can lead to some overly casual messaging that can actually come across as disrespectful. For example, I have received messages from public health students who want to connect or interview me with the following greetings (or no greeting at all!):
“Yo Leah!” (Yes- I’m not kidding with this one)
Just like with emails- I always recommend erring on the side of formal until the person responds. For example, if I’m direct messaging the Dean of my alma mater, I will still start with “Dear Dean XYZ or Dr. XYZ” until he or she requests something else. Even though the communication channel is different, the respect for someone’s education, experience, and position should be the same.
3. Please, please, please add a personal note to your LinkedIn connection requests.
This may be my biggest pet peeve on the planet for online networking. When I first joined LinkedIn (way back!), the network discouraged users from trying to connect with strangers. You may remember that you were previously required to click a box that indicated how you knew the profile of interest (i.e., colleague, classmate, we’ve done business together, etc.)
Now it has become easier to connect with people even if they are strangers. And I’ll admit that I occasionally reach out to people that I haven’t met in person or corresponded with in another setting. HOWEVER. If I do that, I always include a thoughtful and tailored note that describes why I would like to connect. For example, I recently sent the following to someone on LinkedIn who I never met:
Hi [NAME], I am a fellow public health consultant & wanted to reach out after hearing your episode on the Consulting Success Podcast! I loved your advice re: networking & mentoring others. I've just started to help aspiring public health consultants. It was a pleasure hearing about your work. Best, Leah
Doesn’t that sound 500 times better than the terrible generic message sent with most LinkedIn requests??!! (i.e., “Hi Leah, I'd like to join your LinkedIn network.”) Mention something you have in common (e.g., an interest, colleague, or professional organization). Highlight something about their work that you admire or would like to know more about. Make it clear that you read their profile or even visited their website, blog, or podcast.
In my LinkedIn profile description, I actually include the following language:
If you send a connect request and we've never met, please include a message that describes your work and what inspired you to connect. Thanks!
I’m sad to report that almost no one does this. So it tells me quickly that this person did not even bother to read my profile, so they most likely are just trying to pad their connection numbers and/or just want to ask a favor (see tip #4). I decline many of these requests.
4. Stop asking strangers for favors.
When I started consulting, I was amazed at the casual (and sometimes disrespectful) messages I received from strangers asking me for all kinds of favors. This list is not exhaustive:
Free consulting work
Connections at a workplace of interest
Help with school projects (especially those that are due tomorrow that were not started earlier in the semester)
Requests to promote their business or products (which have absolutely nothing to do with mine) on my website or blog
Please don’t do this.
I recommend approaching all email communications with a tone of respect and service.
Write a professional, respectful, tailored message. Just like with LinkedIn, explain why you are interested in connecting (mentioning specific aspects of their business so they can tell this isn’t a form letter).
Be respectful of their time. If you have a deadline (e.g., for a school project interview), contact them at least a month in advance. Most people are not able to drop everything because your paper is due this week.
Instead of just focusing on what you want (e.g., an interview), think about how you may be able to help them as well. Always ask yourself- can this conversation or meeting be mutually beneficial? Are you interested in volunteering with their organization? Do you have other colleagues or fellow students that may be interested in their products or services? Can you share that information with new audiences on social media?
And finally, if someone is kind enough to give an informational interview, discuss internships, connect you with a workplace of interest (etc.) - please write them a thank you note. I would say at least 50% of the “favors” I’ve done have gone completely unacknowledged. This is a huge oversight and reflects very poorly on you for future networking.
So those are my top 4 tips for successful online networking! What else would you add to the list?