For the last few years, the Web has been all abuzz about how the Web is all abuzz. Although the barriers to online communication were always low, they've been virtually eliminated — first by free blogging services like LiveJournal and WordPress, then by the so-called microblogging sites such as Twitter and Facebook. It's easier than ever to broadcast your thoughts immediately to the entire Internet, where they can be googled by anyone who might like to engage you in business, discussion, or blackmail.
A growing number of IT consultants are using social media to reach current and potential clients; however, I still hear many arguments against this business strategy. These are the primary reasons why some IT consultants aren't sold on the idea, all of which you need to consider before you press that Update button.
- Wasting time. Like all shiny new toys, these social media sites can be pretty addictive, especially if your updates start to draw a following. Don't you have work to do? What if your client notices that you updated your status 20 times today when they're expecting you to work on that urgent project?
- Breaching confidentiality. We do a lot of work that our clients expect us to keep secret, which is why we're often required to sign NDAs. The more you blab online, the more likely you'll accidentally reveal something you weren't supposed to discuss.
- Offending people. The best Twitterers are those who speak their minds plainly. But any strong opinion is bound to rub someone the wrong way, and that someone could be an existing or potential client.
- Giving away too much. If you spout all your wisdom online for free, who's going to pay you for it?
- Mixed branding. Are your followers hoping to read about your consultant self, your political self, your religious (or irreligious) self, your ex-classmate self, your pet-owner self, or your struggling-with-personal-issues self?
If used prudently, social media sites can offer your consultancy a number of benefits, including the following:
- Accessing business contacts is easy. I remember physical Rolodexes, in which you inserted business cards. Most contact management systems merely translate that model into software with minimal extensions. Social media sites, on the other hand, add the ability to find new contacts, reconnect with previous contacts, and give and receive searchable recommendations. I particularly like LinkedIn for this functionality, because it was designed from the ground up with business contacts in mind.
- Linking to publications and events. To drive more traffic to anything online, post a link on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Hacker News, or some other social site that may be more appropriate to its specific content. Numerous netizens nourish their news needs directly from these sites. Perhaps more importantly, you'll increase your searchable surface for the crawlers of Google and Bing.
- Providing and receiving status updates online. Rather than having to send separate or mass emails to all of your clients whenever you're out of town, train them to check your status online at any time; this appears to have been the original idea behind Twitter. I wouldn't recommend it for project status, though, unless you and your client don't mind making that information public. When you're sharing project information, it's better to use a private wiki or maybe Google Wave (once we're sure it's safe).
- Establishing conversations. Much like your own blog, you can use social media sites (such as TechRepublic) to carry on conversations about your areas of expertise — that builds your reputation and can often lead directly to new business opportunities. Besides starting discussions on TechRepublic, you can also establish gathering places for specific conversations by creating group or fan pages on Facebook or by using hashtags on Twitter.
- Conveying your personal brand. People like to like people. The paradox of marketing your consulting business is that people are suspicious of consultants who market. They'd much rather engage a real person who has been where they're going and has insights to share. So I don't worry too much about mixing up my brand because my brand is me, the person. Of course, you actually have to be a genuine human for that to work. If you're trying to hide your warts and present yourself as being more perfect than you are, then authenticity is not for you.
I'm still in the process of figuring out the best ways to use these sites for my IT consulting work. Share your thoughts and experiences with using social media to promote your consultancy by posting to the discussion or connecting with me on LinkedIn, Facebook, Plaxo, or Twitter. Long before we get it all figured out, I'm sure there will be something even better.
Additional social media resources from TechRepublic
- A quick Twitter guide and glossary for business users
- 11 reasons to use Twitter for business
- Benefits of rapid-fire social networking: Twitter for companies
- Five benefits of LinkedIn for organizations (and IT pros)
- 10 ways to stay out of trouble when you post to social networking sites
- More than social networking: Don't count out Twitter as a useful support tool
- IT blocks users from social networking in 71% of organizations
- How social networks wreck your online anonymity
- Download: Sample social networking policy
Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.