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I am a recent convert to social media. Like many of the senior leaders I come into contact with each day, I believed it had its place—that it could be useful in communication efforts, especially with Millennials and other “digital natives,” and that it was great for sharing photos with friends and family. Frankly though, for business, it seemed like a large investment of time with little real return, and given the many other priorities on my plate, I questioned its utility. But I continued to hear from many smart people—in books, in articles, and in meetings—that there were tangible business benefits to being active online, even though I struggled to see them.

In the spirit of being open to my own learning, however, I’ve made a concerted effort to be more active on social media over the past year, and I’ve been amazed at what’s resulted. Social media excels at:

  • Expanding reach and making connections. Opportunity often comes down to the network you create. Until a few years ago, we were limited by our immediate connections, but today’s tools make it easier and faster to be part of much larger networks and to connect with people we might not otherwise have met. In the past week alone, I’ve had great conversations with four people—thought leaders, journalists, and business leaders—I likely wouldn’t have met offline.
  • Shaping perception. Social media offers many ways for you to tell your story, from the profile you build on a platform, to sharing articles and other content you find useful, or publishing original work. It is a powerful way to show what it is you value.
  • Continuous learning. There is a tsunami of new information published every day. While at first a platform like Twitter can feel like drinking from a fire hose, you’ll quickly discover tools to help you manage the flow of information (likeTwitter listsHootsuite, and Feedly) and bring relevant content to your fingertips.
  • Listening to customers. While surveys and focus groups are useful, it’s often helpful to get unfiltered opinions directly from the source. Being aware of what bloggers, tweeters, and others online are saying about your products or services can be an important data point when making decisions about your brand.

Beyond what I’ve learned, what’s been fascinating to me is how interested other leaders have been in my social media journey. If the clients I’ve met with recently are any indication, there are many people who are simultaneously curious and hesitant; just as I was when I took my first plunge into this world of instant contact, 140 character interactions, and global platforms for sharing ideas. For these leaders and colleagues, I offer a few tips:

  1. Decide on your social media goals. There are many reasons to engage in social media: making connections, sharing your expertise, listening to customers, shaping perceptions of you, and continuing your development. Decide what it is important to you, and let that shape your involvement.
  2. Choose your platforms. You have real constraints on your time and you cannot do it all, so choose the platforms that will best help you meet your goals. Most business leaders should commit to learning more about LinkedIn and Twitter, at a minimum. For your business Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Google+, or other platforms may also be of use. Start small: begin with one, gain confidence, and grow your involvement from there.
  3. Learn from others. While it is possible to learn on your own through trial and error, it’s time consuming, and most leaders can’t afford the missteps. Without direction, it’s also easy to get overwhelmed and disengaged before you’ve even begun to see what’s possible. Take advantage of the free tutorials each platform offers, invest in books or other materials, and surround yourself with smart people who can serve as a support network. (Bonus tip: this can be an excellent way to leverage and build relationships with younger team members who may be more adept with social media, showing them that you’re open to your own learning and that they have something valuable to contribute).
  4. Promote others more than you promote yourself. As I’ve said, social media is a powerful tool for shaping perception. The temptation, therefore, is to use it solely to share information about yourself, when in fact that’s a great way to turn others off. Think of it like a cocktail party: you’d much rather be part of great conversation than stuck talking to that person who only wants to talk about themselves and how terrific they are. Experts often cite the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of what you post should be interesting content from others and for others, and only 20% should be about you or your brand. Pass along others’ good ideas. Give them credit. Not only does sharing content make you interesting and knowledgeable, but helping other people makes them more likely to help you in return.
  5. Be aware of the pitfalls. We’ve all seen the stories on the real-world consequences of inappropriate social media use. Know your company’s policies on social media, and be sure that you are modeling appropriate behavior for others in the organization. Know any relevant industry regulations that apply. Assume that nothing you share digitally is private; be intentional about the image you want to portray and the relationships you want to build.
  6. Be patient. It took me 6-12 months before I felt like I knew what I was doing online—or at least secure that I knew where to go for answers and advice. I continue to learn every day. Allow yourself to be a learner, and take time to watch, listen, and ask questions before you grow your involvement. It’s not just the new knowledge that you’ll benefit from; there is also much to learn from simply stepping out of your comfort zone and letting others teach you what they know.

As with much in life, there are many benefits for those who choose to make the investment. As a former skeptic, I can attest that the benefits are real. I encourage you to take the plunge, and look forward to connecting with you online.