Why do you go to networking events? Have lunch with colleagues? Seek out advice from experts – and your peers? The answers to these questions are self-evident, and chances are as I asked them, you mentally replied with a quick and logical response. Face-to-face relationship building is a natural part of our work and lives – collaborating with others is what kindles our human fire.
But when it comes to using social media to build business relationships, many women come up short. They question what digital networking tools can do for them and often misunderstand the ways that these tools can serve as an extension of our in-person professional networks.
This is a huge missed opportunity. But perhaps women are shying away from these platforms because they don’t know how to use social networking tools strategically? And maybe, although they can work a room with the best of them, they find the digital networking process daunting and mysterious. Relax. Successful networking has always been about connecting – people to people and people to data. Now it’s being done through technical means.
Repeat after me: what works in-person also works online. So when you approach the social world, put aside your fears and misconceptions and remember that there is a person behind every worthwhile social media account.
With that in mind, let’s discuss four key questions that can help women take advantage of digital networking opportunities.
What do you want to accomplish?
Are you seeking to build your credibility? Attract new customers to your business? Or build a network of likeminded professionals? The answer to these strategic questions should guide how you approach digital networking.
Let’s say you want to attract new customers. In the real world, you would create a target account list. In the digital world, you can use the search function on LinkedIn and Twitter to do the same. Start with a list of firms and then drill down into the role you target. Narrow further by identifying individuals in that role who are active in social media.
Looking to bolster your credibility? Figure out who the influencers are in your market – the same people you would try to sit with or say hello to at a conference.
Once you have identified these folks, act as you would in the real world: follow them, join their conversations, engage with them, share their stuff, and acknowledge their accomplishments.
Just like in high school, you want to be affiliated with the cool kids although you actually hang out with the geeks. Having some of both in your digital network ensures that you’ll be exposed to new opportunities as well as leading-edge thinking.
Who are you?
When you look at your profile on LinkedIn, do you see a living, breathing person – or a resume? Chances are you built your LinkedIn profile to show the world your credentials and perhaps to ensure job stability through the dark days of the recession.
But times have changed, and LinkedIn is no longer an online resume database: it’s a lively forum of thinkers, collaborators, buyers, clients, and networkers. And Twitter is not just for teens. It is an engaging milieu of senior leaders, press and analysts, and interesting people.
So go ahead and revamp your LinkedIn profile to let your personality and passions shine through. Give Twitter a second look.
To help guide what to scribe, think about the audience you would like to meet, imagine you are stuck in an elevator with those people, and describe yourself and the work you do. Now read your summary out loud – does it translate? And for the record, anyone who refers to herself in the 3rd person is not going to win any social grace awards!
What are your interests?
You are in control of your content online, and have an opportunity to use your ideas and thought leadership to align yourself with the topics that matter to you. Whether you’re into mindful marketing or growing a small business or women in pig farming, you’ll find a social channel devoted to – and folks who are excited about – that topic.
Consider choosing three to four themes and making them the center of your social shares. Join groups on LinkedIn that relate to your interests and conduct searches on Twitter to find people and research that resonates. Share your ideas openly and be sure to value the contributions of others. A quid-pro-quo approach is key to cultivating your digital affinity groups.
Remember: your digital voice shouldn’t be a loud broadcast, but rather a conversation based on give and take, question and answer. There is a reason we change the TV channel when the commercials come on. The same is true online.
Who do you want to meet?
The shortest distance between two people is a common interest. This adage holds true both on and offline, but the wonders of digital networking eliminate geography and time zone constraints.
Online networking enables you to meet people that you would not have an opportunity to engage with in real life. For example, experts can be more accessible online than in the real-word as the exchange is brief and it is easy to walk away.
Keep this in mind, too: the people you meet on social media are there because they welcome interactions with others. So there’s no need to break down the barriers that may exist offline.
Consider identifying a few people every month that you would like to get to know. Then use your social networks to start the relationship online.
There is a boatload of tactical advice out there on how to use social media tools. And you should invest some time to understand how the tools work.
But what’s more important when it comes to digital networking is good old-fashioned common sense. Apply what you already know about strategic networking, relationship building, and connecting with people. There’s nothing to be afraid of after all.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com