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E-networking and netiquette go hand in hand

You're probably already aware of a few rules regarding networking, such as making eye contact, offering a firm handshake, exchanging business cards, etc. But what happens to those rules when most of your networking is being done via e-mail?

With the high-tech workplace come all kinds of advantages, such as being able to communicate via electronic mail with someone you might normally not have a chance to speak with. But with those contacts also comes some potential pitfalls, such as making an idiot of yourself with a few typed messages.

We've all done it: as we press the button to "send," we think that perhaps we were a bit too free-wheeling with our thoughts and wish we could call back the missive from cyberspace. Or, there are times we send a message, and then don't hear back from our contact. The reason? We've made such a bad impression on the other end that the person has effectively slammed the mailbox door shut on future interactions.

Why the problems with e-mail networking? There are several, including the fact that we cannot gauge another person's reactions to our words because we can't hear their voice or see their face. Or, some of us get into a "stream of consciousness" thing when typing a message, effectively writing thoughts that were better left hidden in our brains. Some people who wouldn't normally tell an offensive joke to someone in person somehow think it's OK to be rude in e-mail.

Networking electronically can be a terrific thing if it's done correctly. But it must be done right each and every time. Remember: once the message is sent, it can't be taken back, and can only be read again and again by the other person. That's why it's critical you follow some rules of the e-mail road, including:
  • Follow protocol. If this is the first time you have contacted this person and are using the name of a mutual associate, put in the subject line something like: "Contact from John Doe." Then, in the first paragraph, identify yourself and add, "your former co-worker, John Doe, suggested I write you..." If you have met the person before, always include a brief description of where and when you met, and perhaps mention something you discussed, such as: "I wanted to follow-up with you concerning..."
  • Don't overdo it. After your brief introductory paragraph, hone in on what you're after. Do you want information about an industry? A lunch meeting to get better acquainted? Be specific, but don't be pathetic. Don't beg for a job in your message, or leave it up to the other person to take action: "If you hear of something, let me know." You need to state when you will follow up, and then do it.
  • Offer something in return. Nobody likes a leech.
  • See your message as a printout. If you think of your e-mail ending up on paper, it will help keep you focused on using correct grammar, spelling and avoiding annoying computer jargon.
  • Include personal contact information. Not only include your e-mail, but also your address and phone number. Even though you've made the contact via electronic means, the person on the other end may prefer to reach you in other ways.
  • Be persistent. Sometimes we delete e-mails by accident, or because we just want to see how serious the person on the other end can be. Don't be afraid to send your missive more than once.
  • Keep it legal. Never send anything in e-mail that you wouldn't mind 12 other people seeing, including several lawyers. Maybe you think you're gaining the inside edge in your networking efforts by including industry gossip or inside information about a company. Nothing could be further from the truth. Keep all your correspondence truthful and aboveboard.

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