By Annie Pettit

There are many reasons to love the internet but my top reason is that it shrinks the world to fit into my own backyard. Whether someone lives in Australia, India, Japan, Finland, South Africa, Venezuela, Mexico, or even in another province of Canada, I can communicate with all of them on a personal, one to one basis any time and any day I want. Networking with a global community of industry experts has never been easier and, given global accessibility and the accelerated rate of technological innovations, never more essential.

One of the main problems people have with social media networks and digital networking, however, is that the tools are boring, irrelevant, or waste a lot of time. A few quick tips might help to improve the experience so that you too can benefit from digital networking.

1. Find the social network that’s right for you

There are hundreds of social networks but you only need to find and participate in the one that suits you best. If you are visually oriented, head off to Pinterest or Instagram. If you want to get to know people personally, Facebook is the place for you. If you like a mixture of personal and business content that is short and sweet, Twitter is the place for you. If you’re all business, all the time, LinkedIn will suit you perfectly. Indeed, anyone wishing to grow their brand or further their career should be active on LinkedIn.

There are many more networks to choose from but the bulk of English industry conversations take place on these networks. You could try QQ.com or Weibo.com if you speak Chinese, or Vk.com if you speak Russian.

2. Focus on people in your industry

Most social networks try to help new users by suggesting accounts to follow. Bad idea! Absolutely never follow their recommendations. If you are forced to do so to get your account working, be sure to unfollow those accounts as quickly as you can. Following celebrities, athletes, musicians, and pundits might be fun at first but, over time, you’ll find that type of content to be sensationalist and boring. You’ll probably even give up.

Instead, seek out people in your field, including industry experts, keeners, and hobbyists. If your industry is marketing, search for keywords like marketing, advertising, branding, retail, customers, consumers, messaging, pricing, or targeting. If your industry is market research, search for keywords like analytics, data, ethnography, focus groups, insights. Identify the relevant hashtags such as #marketing, #advertising, #branding, #MRX, or #NewMR. Find your relevant industry association. Identify the people who use those words and follow their accounts.

Even better, identify at least one expert who is well known in your industry and follow all the accounts they follow. More specifically, take care to follow personal accounts that showcase the names and photos of human beings not business accounts with names and logos of businesses.

To ensure you’ve always got a regular stream of new, interesting, and unusual ideas flowing through your stream, follow at least 1000 accounts from around the world. You aren’t supposed to read everything from these 1000 people as if they’re emails or personal messages. Rather, glance at whatever is passing through your stream when you happen to feel like taking a peek.

3. Go beyond surfing and lurking

Social networks are supposed to be social but that doesn’t mean you have to share photos of your dinner or your kids (actually, give your kids the gift of privacy and don’t share any information about them online). You also don’t have to fill up the interweebs with random chatter just for the sake of being able to say you participated.

In the digital space, you are encouraged and expected to communicate with anyone, even world renowned, industry gurus, about anything. When you do see a post that is interesting or thought provoking, reply or leave a comment for the author. Let them know you liked their idea or share your own experience with the topic.

In addition to replying to comments, be sure to share your own ideas. Many people think they have nothing interesting to say, nothing new to say, or simply nothing worth sharing. I can 100% assure you that this is wrong. Everyone is an expert in something. Everyone has a unique perspective on even the most ordinary topics. The trick is simply to recognize when one of those opinions has popped into your head.

When you do share and comment, you’ll quickly become part of a conversation with people you’ve never talked to before but who now look forward to hearing from you. You never know who you’ll become fast friends with, who might ask you to speak at a conference, or who might turn into your best client.

4. Communicate on a personal level

Networks like LinkedIn try to be helpful by giving users templated responses, sometimes suggesting phrases such as “I’ll be in touch” or “thank you” as one-click responses. Unless you need to reply to a hundred messages in the next five minutes, don’t take the bait. Take the time to respond to every person individually with a relevant thought or comment, even if it is simply a more personal way of saying “thanks a bunch!”

Some networks allow you to send automated messages. For instance, Twitter can be set up so that any new follower automatically receives a private message thanking them for the follow. Some people create longer private messages that include further contact information about their products and services. Don’t do that. Most automated messages are unwelcome. In fact, they might even encourage someone to stop following you. If you truly want to thank people for following your account, take the time to do it personally.

5. Social media is for social not selling

If your title begins with a C (e.g., Chief, Consultant) or has the word “business” or “sales” in it, chances are every time you talk to someone, your brain tries to force you to offer a sales pitch or to invite someone to review your products and services. Don’t do it. Turn off that part of your brain. Beginning any new relationship with a sales pitch is a sure fire way to encourage someone to click on the mute/unfriend/unfollow/block button.

Instead, get to know people. Simply chat with people. Engage in some genuine conversation about the state of the industry. Learn what industry topics are important to them and what their challenges are. As part of a normal conversation between friends. Over time, you might experience the ultimate metric of success… you might find that you are asked for a pitch.

6. Keep your profile current

Over time, you`ll learn more about your industry, and your interests and experiences will evolve. The profile you set up on a social media account 3 years ago may have been fun and relevant then, but it certainly doesn’t describe who you are today. Sometimes, that very short profile is all that people will see about you so make sure it reflects who you are today, not the young and uninformed kid you were 3 years ago. Current photos help new friends recognize you in the conference crowd, and current websites help potential clients learn more about your services on their own initiative. Make it a habit to update, or at least check, your information once each year.

Above all, don’t stress. If you find a social network to be overwhelming or unhelpful, find a buddy who can guide you through the intricacies and help you find a strategy that works for you.