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Minding Your Manners Online: Eight Lessons In Netiquette That Will Help You Succeed In Social Media Charm School

Social networking provides companies with a user-friendly, fast, and far-reaching way to connect with employees and clients. But as with face-to-face meetings, says Barry Libert, there are certain rules of etiquette that must be followed to achieve the desired outcome.

The Internet is a big, limitless place where the rules of everyday life don't always apply. You can be whomever you want to be and say whatever you want to say...right? Well actually, no, you can't — or at least, you shouldn't. Especially if your online presence is connected to your professional image. The fact of the matter is, just as there is proper etiquette in the "real" world, there's a right way and a wrong way to behave in the online world, too. In fact, says Libert, how you choose to communicate can have a very real impact on your relationships with employees, customers, and partners. "For some reason, many people seem to think that using social media gives them a pass to leave manners and etiquette behind," observes Libert, author of the new book Social Nation: How to Harness the Power of Social Media to Attract Customers, Motivate Employees, and Grow Your Business (Wiley, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-470-59926-6, $24.95, "They don't realize that social media can actually be a critical vehicle by which to engage customers and inspire employees."

Libert knows what he's talking about. After all, he's the chairman and CEO of Mzinga®, a company that provides social software to businesses. Quite literally, it's his job to be social media savvy. Chances are, you know he's right — there is online protocol that should be followed. However, it might surprise you to hear that "Netiquette," as online etiquette has been dubbed, is a serious enough topic to warrant several books by Peter Post, great-grandson of the legendary manners arbiter Emily Post. It might surprise you even more to learn that the basic rules of etiquette — even on a computer screen — have changed little since the original Post reigned supreme.

"It's true: being considerate, respectful, and honest are crucial if you want today's 'Social Nation' to work for you and your business," confirms Libert. "But there's a little more to Netiquette than that. Increasingly, the line between our personal and professional lives is becoming blurred, and information posted online can easily make the jump from one to the other even if you don't intend for it to. When used wisely, social media really can help you build high-quality professional relationships that will pay off for both parties offline." Essentially, social media in a business context should be used to attract and foster ongoing relationships with loyal followers. And, says Libert, that means that everyone in your company who's socially networking must be well-mannered, engaging, and emotionally attuned to others.

Ready to begin building your own company's online presence? Then read on for Libert's eight etiquette lessons — rules that will help you successfully develop a community of supporters who will help your business relationships prosper:
Pretend you're offline. It's pretty simple: if you wouldn't say it offline, don't say it online. It really doesn't matter if you're tweeting, blogging, chatting, or otherwise. Many people behave as though what's said online won't have the same ramifications as it would in "real time." If you believe that's true, just talk to someone who's been fired for a post on Facebook or because of an inappropriate blog post. Yes, it has happened, and it can easily happen to you.

A basic rule of thumb to follow is this: If you wouldn't say it at work or at the gym or in the middle of a dinner party, don't do it online. This doesn't mean you have to hide all of your feelings, opinions, or observations, though. That's what is so amazing about social culture: it encourages people to share, to have a voice, and to express themselves.

Remember, it's not all about you. It's time to face facts: while your family and close friends might be interested in just about every opinion and perspective you have to offer, the general public might not be. Remember that by and large, folks can quickly become bored. It's important to engage others by providing information, ideas, and products they'll find helpful. "It's easy to whine, brag, and gloat online," Libert points out. "Choose to talk about something meaningful, informative, and/or helpful — something that adds value. People want to read about topics that will enhance their lives, their businesses, and their knowledge, so provide your clients with information, tools, and tips on subjects that are of interest to them."

Don't ignore spelling and grammar.
srsly, uv seen sentences like this b4, but do u rly find them impressive? In a professional context, you should strive to use correct punctuation and spelling, watch your grammar, be decent, and remember who will be reading what you write. Contrary to increasingly popular opinion, your communications to your boss and colleagues shouldn't resemble texts to your best friend.

Always bear in mind that what you write and how you write it is a reflection of who you are and what you care about. Think about it: why would a potential employer want to hire someone who couldn't be bothered to check spelling and punctuation in his or her resume? Similarly, if a business demonstrates carelessness when communicating online, it could very well lead potential clients to wonder if that's the level of sophistication and attention to detail the company demonstrates in all of its work.

Don't hide behind social media.
Unless you're living in a computer-less time warp, you've probably been guilty of using email to send a message you didn't want to deliver in person. The thing is, though, words still matter as much online as they do in real time — and they stick around longer. When possible, avoid using social media as an easy out when you're facing a tough conversation or want to spout off an annoyance.

"Repeat after me: there is no such thing as 'behind someone's back' in the world of social media," Libert stresses. "It's all out there, virtually forever, so don't fool yourself. If you have something to say — and criticism is allowed and may even be warranted at times — say it with respect; and before you send it, be sure it's something you will be willing to stand by in a week. On the flip side, don't worry that one nasty online comment from a disgruntled customer will ruin your business. How you handle it may make all the difference."

Leave the sensational to someone else.
ATTENTION: This never-before-shared piece of advice will change the way you do business and catapult your company into a Fortune 500 slot. Sounds good, right? Of course it does! But the thing is, it's not a claim that can be guaranteed. When it comes to social media, it's best to be honest and stick to the truth.

The fact is, rumors and sensational posts may send readers flocking to you at first, but dishonesty and irresponsible behavior will ultimately come back to haunt you. Yes, in the heat of the moment, that sensational comment might seem like a good idea...but you might regret clicking "send" before all is said and done. It's better to wait an hour — or maybe even a day — before launching your message into the public domain.

Take control of yourself. Ultimately, you — not your boss, your spouse, or your mom — are responsible for your choices and behavior. When it comes to social media, that means actively choosing to infuse your communications with positivity, tell the truth, give credit where credit is due, and be polite — to name just a few possibilities. "Whether you are a manager or not, managing yourself smarter is important to your career as well as to your personal life," Libert points out. "Everyone is tempted to cut corners or to gratuitously vent from time to time, but when you choose not to do those things online, you're setting a good example for others from within your organization — and you're doing good things for your own career growth. Remember that if you do choose to post an ill-advised update, for example, you'll be the one taking the rap for it."

Consider yourself a brand, and act accordingly. Sure, you might be one of a dozen, 100, or even 100,000 employees, but you're more than that. Especially considering the far-reaching, viral potential of information that's shared online, your thoughts and opinions can be seen by just about anyone. Remember that how you act is reflective of who you are and, in the case of business, of your brand as well. It really isn't far-fetched to say that what you do online can impact your company's brand, so bear in mind how you want others to perceive you and your organization — and let that influence your online presence. Remember that sharing can be your most powerful tool since it gives people something to relate to and comment on, but sharing too much or sharing inappropriately can be equally destructive.

Blog, but mind your manners.
By simply setting up a blog, any individual — or company — can become a "published" author and gather a crowd of loyal readers. Yes, blogs are fun to read and to write — and they can also be used to grow your business, engage business partners, and establish thought-leadership.

"It's a heady feeling to have your voice heard by scores of virtual blog visitors," Libert agrees, "but make sure you're writing smart. Don't get too big for your britches! There are things to watch out for with blogs that aren't really dangers with status updates and shorter information posts. Foremost among those is plagiarism — be very careful that you aren't using someone else's words or images without proper acknowledgement. Also, pay attention to the input you're getting from your readers' comments — sometimes longer blog posts spark more in-depth discussions than shorter updates. Oh — and don't forget to have fun!"

"By following these basic rules of etiquette, you'll be one step closer to generating the results you seek: a more positive work environment, attaining and providing real value to your customers as they follow your daily actions, and a better brand for your company and yourself," concludes Libert.
"Remember, though, that manners, good online etiquette, and respect for relationships are only one portion of the equation."

Social Nation: How to Harness the Power of Social Media to Attract Customers, Motivate Employees, and Grow Your Business is available at bookstores nationwide, major online booksellers, or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-47.
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