If you are struggling with the whole social media trend, you aren’t alone, but you might be dating yourself. While many people I talk to lament the passing of “old” ways of communicating (letter writing, the telephone call), others eat, breathe and speak all things virtual. For me, there is always a middle ground. Call me pragmatic or call me crazy, but I believe that business people (with very few exceptions) who wish to maintain their professional vitality long term need to keep an eye on social media. These on-line focus groups, opinion drivers, global connectors present amazing opportunities for creating fascinating networks that level the playing field for small and mid-size companies who don’t have the budget resources of larger corporations. Even large corporations seeking to speed up innovation can avoid the damages of “group-think” by utilizing a larger pool of talent (inside and outside their companies) to spur creativity and maintain their competitive edge.

The tricky challenge – some of the rules in this new space are pretty different than the current business protocol – you have to share things to get things. Transparency is a dirty word in business – it’s scary. With social media, privacy is re-defined and authenticity, collaboration, knowledge sharing are valued attributes – all reasons for business traditionalists to run for the hills and seek cover. But ironically, so much of this new place is built on age-old principles. Integrity is still integrity and betrayal is still betrayal even if it is virtual. In the end, it’s all about relationships. While it may have been professional organizations, rotary, a sporting event, a drink after work or lots and lots of lunches (all still in existence by the way), good networking has always kept business running. The social media space is no different. It’s still all about building meaningful connections with each other, but now you might choose to connect with someone who lives half way around the globe.

For some this new world seems less personal. I think it simply requires a bit of creativity and a sincere desire to connect. And there are still lots of opportunities to meet people and look them in the eye if that’s your choice. Of course, if you have trouble making friends face-to-face, if physical events intimidate you, you may find it less stressful to create a network virtually; less face time might be a good thing. But don’t be fooled, just because you choose to network virtually doesn’t mean it’s any less work.

Building relationship has always been a challenge – they require time and once they are established, proper care and feeding. They also work best when you maintain an open mind. Virtual networking is no different than traditional networking. You can’t neglect a relationship or treat someone poorly and expect things to flourish. It’s pretty hard to succeed all by yourself. But this is no different than it’s ever been; business is more productive if you have a good resource network. Social media simply offers you a larger talent pool. Or you could avoid the whole social media thing, but be prepared, someone younger than you will probably roll their eyes at you if you do.

My father got my announcement about our new website the other day – http://www.sophiathinkconsulting.com and he immediately shot back a link
http://www.marketwatch.com/story/join-my-im-bitter-about-twitter-club-2009-07-29?siteid=nwtpm to indicate his opinion of social media. And while I appreciate the blog topic which contends that investing financially in Twitter at this time is risky business, I think my father is missing the point.

Tools aside, the social media industry’s overriding mission – to create mechanisms to build virtual communities of like-minded neighbors has legs. It’s here to stay. Anyone focused solely on the tools (be it Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or the myriad of other venues) is missing the point. I realize learning to navigate in this new arena can be daunting, but show me one smart executive that isn’t interested in cost-effective ways to connect with their market demographic.

Business leaders spend lots of time and money wracking their brains (and urging their employees) to seek effective methods to determine what their customers are thinking. Social media, for all its faults, provides a bird’s eye view into the thoughts of millions. The challenge for business leaders is pretty clear. They have to figure out how to listen to the participants by sifting through the ocean of data points so they get to the relevant messages. Not an easy task and particularly daunting in a venue that has proved impervious to short cuts….it takes time, consistency and authenticity (an elusive commodity) to cultivate a successful online presence.

Whether Twitter is a success story or goes the way of so many other technologies remains to be seen. But in a world enamored of the next big thing and addicted to spilling its guts with abandon, you can be sure there will be plenty of new options ready to step up and take its place.