by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
I recently gave my university students an online networking activity as an option for their final project. The assignment was to develop an online network of 250 contacts through a networking site such as Ryze, PathConnect, Common.net, Ecademy.com, everyonesconnected.com, Knowmentum, Linked In, Open BC, Networking for Professionals, and ZeroDegrees.
I chose the number 250 because it’s a figure commonly cited by networking experts as an effective number of contacts to have in one’s professional network.
My students, however, encountered many frustrations in trying to build an online network of 250, with the most successful student constructing a network of only 29 contacts over a month and a half.
My students’ difficulties illustrate the argument that online social/business networking is a concept with great potential, but many kinks need to be worked out. As recruiting expert John Sullivan recently wrote about online social networks, “All boots and no cattle here. They will not prosper until they get faster and easier to use.” This article describes some of the issues with these networks and suggests some ways to make the most effective use of them.
Many college students are accustomed to social networking through Facebook, which they say is an easy way to build a network. There’s a difference, though, between a network and a network that can help a student advance his or her career. Facebook is really more for making friends than for establishing professional contacts. Still, one finance major, who searched for other Stetson finance majors and got 131 results, observed that “talking to my fellow classmates about their future plans can be a huge networking tool.” Beyond the college realm, Friendster is an analogous networking site that is more socially than professionally oriented.
Billy Smith, a Stetson University senior double-major in history and business, notes the difficulty of adding contacts in Ryze compared to adding friends in Facebook: “Ryze … requires its users to know another member’s e-mail address in order to send a Friend request, and e-mail addresses are rarely given in individuals’ profiles,” Smith wrote in his paper about the experience, quoted here with his permission. “When I clicked the link that instructed me to click on it to add Friends, the page that came up asked for e-mail addresses of people I know so that I could invite them to join Ryze. I, however, was hoping that it would show me existing members to add as Friends.” Affirming John Sullivan’s observations of lack of user friendliness, Smith recalls that even after he read the “surprisingly unhelpful new-member guides,” he remained “frustrated and in the dark on how to find existing members.” Other students were equally confused by Ryze. I, too, am a member of Ryze, which claims that the average Ryze profile that includes a photo yields contacts in the hundreds. My profile contains my photo, but my number of contacts has never risen above about 40.
Another student’s experience with Company of Friends affirms John Sullivan’s critique of the lack of speed in online networks. The student joined an Orlando-based Company of Friends group and noted that it did not update its posts very often. He also checked out Ziggs, which is more of a people search engine than a networking site. Though the student was regularly bombarded with suggestions that he upgrade his profile for $4.95 a month, he found more than 8,000 Ziggs listings in Florida for people with “finance” in their profiles, more than 1,800 using the keyword “Stetson,” and more than 300 in Florida using “Stetson finance” as the search term.
Another student was frustrated by LinkedIn. This network requires an invitation to become a member, which I as a member provided to interested students. The junior marketing major, who became a LinkedIn member at my invitation, got responses from only two of the 35 people she tried to add to her network. She also reported that many prospective contacts had blocks on their accounts, preventing introductions from being sent. Given that this student received “massive amounts of junk mail and spam from businesses” while a member of these networking groups (and has since canceled her memberships to stop the onslaught), it’s reasonable to conclude that some members blocked their account because they, too, had been victims of spammers.
It’s possible that members of these social networks don’t value contacts with college students (“What can a college student do for me?” they might ask). The marketing major concluded that “professionals were not interested in providing information to someone who can provide nothing in return.”
This expectation of quid pro quo is not unreasonable, asserts Recruitment Specialist and Microsoft Technical Sourcing Consultant Jim Stroud, writing in Online Recruitment Magazine. Stroud contends that the networking-etiquette deficiencies that plague the offline world also run rampant online. He advises offering something (an idea, information, an introduction) instead of asking for something during the first contact. He also suggests getting to know and staying in touch with your online contacts, as well as being selective about the online networking invitations you accept.
Since Billy Smith and his experience with Ryze represent the most successful student outcome of this project, the tricks he discovered for capitalizing on his Ryze experience are offered here. While the suggestions are specific to Ryze some can be adapted to other networking sites, which offer similar features:
1. Join common-interest network groups. Smith joined 13 such groups, including “Law and Order Junkies” and “Public Speaking – the essential skill.” He then obtained the e-mail addresses of these networks’ administrators through the regular e-mails they send out to members and added them as Friends. “Once I added a few well-established existing members as Friends, it became a lot easier to contact other existing members because now I had the ability to contact their Friends, my new ‘Friends of Friends,'” Smith recalls.
Company of Friends is another network in which users can find contacts based on interests (as well as geography and industry affiliation). Other networks, such as Common.net, use mutual interests — rather than random networking — as the central focus of their approach. Writes Michael Cohn in InternetWeek, “Common.net is advocating one-to-one networking as a discreet way of establishing trust…The service relies on comparing similarities between the personal profiles that members publish online.” PathConnect connects individuals through goal-setting, character growth, and mentorship
2. Use the Network with Me feature. “Once someone acknowledges that he or she would like to network with someone else, the e-mail address of the sender of the request becomes available to the recipient, enabling the recipient to send a Friend request to the sender if he or she so desires,” Smith explains. “After making my first five or so Friends, I asked them each, using private messages, how to best find and make new Friends. Their responses suggested that I keep using the Network with Me feature, target Gold and Platinum members, and also send private messages to people I would like to add as Friends.”
3. Use the Guestbook feature. Smith didn’t discover the Guestbook, “probably the most effective way of making initial contact,” until close to the end of his networking adventure. “One of my Friends sent me a private message suggesting that I make my guestbook public, and only after doing so I found that the guestbook is an essential part of the culture of the Ryze community,” he points out.
4. Be sure the people with whom you’re trying to network are active participants. “I began to suspect that many of the people I was trying to network with were no longer active in the Ryze community,” Smith notes, “so after initial attempts to gain Friends by notifying anyone and everyone proved rather ineffective, I switched to a more selective approach. I began sending networking requests only to those individuals who appeared to be the most active [based on] the number of hits on their page.” Smith explains that hits are the total number of times that any member has viewed a profile. As a member with 154 hits, Smith considers anyone who has been a member for a year and has fewer than 100 hits to be inactive. “Although I have nearly 5,000 Friends of Friends,” Smith laments, “my experiences have shown me that too large a number of members are seemingly inactive; they do not reply to messages and have only three or four friends. Some profiles I encountered were created over three years ago and still have less than five hits.” Oops, looks like I’m inactive as I’ve been a member for two years and have a mere 42 hits.
5. Focus on contacting those who pay for membership. In Ryze’s case, members with Gold and Platinum memberships. “It seems that the only active Ryze users are these Gold and Platinum members, although my experience has shown me that a ‘free’ member like myself can still enjoy all the same networking benefits of being a part of Ryze,” Smith observes. Smith notes that this selective contact approach brought in confirmed Friends at a much higher rate than he had been experiencing. “Nearly all my confirmed Friends are paying Ryze users,” Smith says.
6. Insert your e-mail address into your profile multiple times. Annoyed by the difficulty of obtaining members’ e-mail addresses, Smith changed his profile to explicitly state, ‘My email address to add me as a friend: [Smith’s e-mail address].” Smith notes that “this publicity also contributed to the increase in the rate at which I gained confirmed Friends.”
All in all, Smith was surprised and delighted by the “sincere enthusiasm and encouragement from those members who were active participants in the community. “My friends were eager to help me out, congratulated me on my accomplishments, and quickly responded when I would ask questions or simply carry on conversations,” he says. Smith cites a Ryze friend who is a photographer and has contacted Smith about an entrepreneurial opportunity. “By reading my Friends’ guestbooks, I have discovered that they are all caring individuals and spend a considerable time each day with the Ryze community, discussing anything from the latest news developments to online personal marketing to helping each other with personal problems,” Smith notes.
Like Billy Smith, the most successful online networkers are persistent. They are determined to find the best ways to make imperfect networking platforms work for them. Some, like Rick Upton (tips and blog) and Christian Mayaud, publish their findings, with Mayaud also suggesting that LinkedIn is “imploding” and the tips may be losing their applicability. Others are insiders, such as Thomas Powers, author of The Ecademy Guide to Power Networking (see sample chapter). Until the perfect online networking site comes along, the persistence to uncover the tricks and shortcuts — or the resourcefulness to deploy the tips mined by others — can be a great boon to job-seekers and others seeking to expand their professional networks.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.
Achieve career networking success! Take advantage of all the career networking tools, articles, and resources found in our The Art of Career Networking section of Quintessential Careers.
Maximize your career and job-search knowledge and skills! Take advantage of The Quintessential Careers Content Index, which enables site visitors to locate articles, tutorials, quizzes, and worksheets in 35 career, college, job-search topic areas.