Most people view social media -- at least Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) -- as places for fun. These sites are to keep in touch with friends and family, post vacation or meal photos, and generally a way to share your life with people you know.
Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) LinkedIn, of course, has a more direct connection to employment. It's built around finding jobs and building professional connections, but the reality is that all social media offers career-building opportunities.
Connecting with people on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or any other social site can be the beginning of a relationship that leads to new opportunities. It's all about making connections and turning strangers into acquaintances and eventually friends.
How do you start?
The first thing you need to do before using social media to benefit your career is make sure you have sanitized your platforms. This means definitely taking down references to anything illegal and those photos of you having partied a little too much.
You decide exactly where the line is. Some people would suggest taking down all political posts, but that's a personal choice. It's probably a good idea to leave politics off LinkedIn, but if your beliefs define you and may impact your career choices, share them, but avoid anything too extreme.
I tend to use Facebook as my method of connecting with people. That includes reaching out to people I have met in the real world. This may mean friending a public relations person I shared a parenting story with or connecting with someone I met randomly in my personal life.
I've created a broad network that includes family, friends, colleagues, past colleagues, a few fans, some members of bands I like, and friends of friends with overlapping interests. As I interact with these people and their posts, sometimes relationships are built.
Social media can show you what you have in common with virtual strangers. You may bond over your kids or that you both watch Daredevil. It doesn't really matter how or over what you connect. Actual bonds can be built simply because you learn that your high school friend's friend posts really interesting insight or that the person you met on the train has amazing taste in music.
What do you do with your connections?
Most people like to help their friends. I've had Facebook and Twitter friends help me make connections at companies that weren't returning my phone calls. I've also had social media connections serve as sources for stories and connect me with people they knew who fit the bill.
A social media friend is like any other friend. You have to gauge whether what your asking is reasonable. If you know I live in south Florida, it's reasonable to ask for hotel recommendations. It's not quite so reasonable to ask if you can move in for a week.
If someone you know digitally can open a door for you, ask politely. It's also reasonable to put out broad requests like, "I'm looking for a job and have 12 years of non-profit accounting experience." That makes it possible for people to help and it gives them a chance to be a hero, both to you and to the person looking for someone with your experience.
Just be you
My social media plan isn't overly calculated. I'm not seeking out contacts in a planned way, I'm simply treating Facebook and Twitter (and to a lesser extent, LinkedIn) as one big cocktail party. It's a chance to meet people and make friends. If those friends can later help me, or I can help them, well, that's a delightful cherry on top of an already delicious dessert.