Social media has become the new water cooler of the world. Suddenly, websites like LinkedIn are equally as important as an updated resume; if you’re not on the site and actively participating, you’re missing out on some supposedly “great” connections. Social media has created a whole new world of online networking.

If you’re anything like me, you know that sometimes, old-fashioned in person interactions can be painful (who REALLY wants to talk about the weather? No one). How can social media be any better?

Well, the answer is simple: you can make more connections, more easily. Social media sites like LinkedIn and many others allow anyone (read: socially awkward/impatient people like me) to share interests, spark conversations, apply to jobs, receive and give references, and ultimately, make strong connections with each other, all from the comfort of your home computer or smartphone. These sites are social without the social—genius!

While this may be a great perk for people like me, there are many more people out there in the professional world who don’t get social media. For those personality types who thrive in social settings, or for those who simply aren’t that in-tune to social technology culture yet, there are some things to look out for when using any kind of social media to start making professional connections.

Focus on Yourself First

Who doesn’t like to talk about themselves? Well, regardless of if you do, the first step to making your online social presence the best it can be is to completely fill out your profile. Every. Single. Question. Don’t skip the “About me” portion, or neglect to put up a cover photo, and DON’T set your dog’s photo as your profile picture.

The beauty of online profiles is that it’s your opportunity to put your best foot forward: fill out each portion of the profile truthfully and thoughtfully. People will be more likely to view your profile and take you seriously (and believe you’re a real person and not a bot) if you do.

Now, Focus on Everyone Else

Once you’ve established who you are, now’s the time to actually start participating in the social media sphere. Through comments, likes, and shares, you can make a common connection with someone: this could be a colleague, a peer from college, or even a stranger who works for a company you know. They see something and like it, you see something and like it—instant common thread. Even better, you see something and like it, and someone else sees the same thing and hates it—controversy

Over the internet, sometimes it can be hard to connect with others. Online networking can be hard.

and constructive discussion (if you’re careful).

As great as all this connecting is, it won’t happen unless you actually participate—share, like, write, and comment on what you see. There’s no stage fright on social media!

Be Open to Direct Messaging

So you’ve started to participate in the conversation, and you’ve established a presence in your social media community. Now what? Commenting and sharing isn’t the only way to connect with potential companies, colleagues, and references. You can also use DMs.

DMs—or direct messages—are used on the instant chat option of your social media site. You can send and receive DMs from anyone that you’re connected with, and from strangers too, depending on your settings. If you want to reach out to someone personally, DMs are a great way to do it. Be careful though—there’s etiquette that goes along with direct messaging. Be conscious of who you’re reaching out to, and their preferred methods of communication. Don’t expect an immediate response: people have lives, too!

Be Genuine, Be Honest – and Yes, Be Yourself

“Be Yourself” is probably something your parents good-naturedly said to you on your first day of school. Well mom and dad, you nailed it– something that’s extremely hard to find on social media nowadays is authenticity. By being authentically yourself, speaking your mind, being honest (but professional), and being willing to share your opinions and ideas with others, you put yourself a league ahead of the thousands just jumping on the bandwagon. Don’t be afraid to post original content, to ask questions, and to put your heart on your sleeve when asking for collaboration. You’ll attract the kind of people you want to work with, and that’s the whole point of networking in the first place.

Networking isn’t always the most pleasant experience, but it’s necessary to get ahead and make the right movements in your career, no matter what your industry is. If you can charge head first into online networking, and optimize your efforts, you’ll be way ahead of the game—and you might make it easier for yourself next time you do need to network in person.

“Hey! You posted a hilarious video the other day. What did you think about…”

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