Why Face-to-Face Networking Still Trumps Social Networking

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According to a new report from the “social discovery” site Badoo, 39% of Americans now spend more time socializing online than they do in person. In addition, nearly 20% prefer communication via text or the Internet over talking face to face or on the phone. But focusing strictly on e-networking and digital communication can hurt your career, not to mention your social skills where they really count—in the real world.

There are now more than 900 million people on Facebook, a few billion tweets per week on Twitter, and over a hundred million blogs. People aren’t just accessing social networks within browsers either; more than half of the people on Facebook (600 million to be exact) access the site on their mobile phones. While social media has become a global phenomenon you ignore at your own peril, it is just as unwise to forget about the necessity of building strong, face-to-face relationships.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Sherry Turkle, a professor at M.I.T., wrote of the sad state of affairs in that “we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.” In other words, many people now find it much easier and more convenient to message, e-mail, and friend others online than to take the time to truly get to know someone in person. The result may be that we have more connections, but the typical relationship is shallower.

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This is problematic in terms of one’s career, because it’s the people who know you the best and trust you the most who can wind up helping you the most. No matter how well the latest tech tools allow us to stay in touch, face-to-face meetings are still very important in the workplace. One of the dangers of working remotely is that telecommuters are isolated from the people that they work with, most importantly the managers who have the power to promote (or ignore or downsize) them. While networking can and should include social networking online, to form strong bonds with co-workers and colleagues and differentiate yourself from the pack, there is no substitute for connecting in person.

Here are some tips for how (and why) to break away from the virtual world and start networking in the real world:

1. Be seen and heard in the office. As annoying as it can seem, there’s something to be said for face time. When people see you in the flesh, they know you’re working and get a better sense of who you are, your emotional intelligence, and your leadership ability. Sometimes it’s difficult for managers to get a sense of these things if they don’t regularly see the people they are managing. So if you haven’t met with your manager in a while, make an excuse to visit. Talk about work, but try to just talk-talk too.

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2. Get away from technology so you’re less socially awkward. Ever wonder why it’s so hard to have a normal conversation with the folks in IT? The work of Dr. Gary Small, a psychiatrist at UCLA, indicates that spending more time on technology-related tasks, and less time exposed to other people, has somewhat expected results: Over time, one’s face-to-face communication skills can become weaker and weaker. If 99% of your time is spent in front of a screen instead of chatting away with real people, your social skills will be out of practice. It will be harder to hold a conversation and appear confident in social situations with colleagues and clients, and your awkwardness will hurt your chances of advancing in the workplace. So, even if it seems unnecessary and a quick e-mail would probably do the trick, force yourself to talk to people and have in-person meetings from time to time.

3. Register for events that cost money to attend. By doing this, you’re forcing yourself to go to the event because you’ll suffer a monetary penalty if you don’t. Find networking events and industry conferences in your area by going to AllConferences.com and Eventbrite.com. While more and more people are tweeting at these events, try to refrain. The purpose of attending is to network with people who are there, not somewhere else. During the event, it’s imperative that you meet no more than five people and invest time and energy building those relationships. One trick I use is to review the list of attendees in advance, select a few people I want to meet at the event, and then find them soon after arriving.

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4. Use social networks as a first step to face-to-face networking. You can learn a lot about people in online forums. Use them to help you find smart, interesting people in your industry. Take the initiative to meet—offline, in person—the people with whom you have the most in common. We aren’t friends with all of our Facebook friends or our LinkedIn connections, but there are at least a few that would make for great business partners, co-workers or friends.

5. Be mindful of how you present yourself online. We’re talking about in-person networking, but nowadays one’s online and offline personas are blurred together. Therefore, be smart about your profile picture and status updates—keep them professional, or at least not embarrassing and career-damaging—because they will affect how you’re perceived and treated both online and offline. Also, don’t lie. In the Badoo study, 24% of respondents admitted to exaggerating or lying on social networks. Another study shows that 55% of Facebook users remove friends if they’ve published offensive comments. If you try and create a false persona, or out yourself as a jerk, people will eventually find out. Worst case scenario, you could lose some friends, a promotion that should have been yours, or even your job.

Schawbel is the managing partner of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research-and-management-consulting firm. He speaks on the topic of personal branding, social media and Gen Y workforce management for companies such as Google, Time Warner, Symantec, CitiGroup and IBM. Subscribe to his updates at Facebook.com/DanSchawbel.