You're Invited!

By joining a targeted online community, you may be able to bolster your business

Whether you support the fostering of human relationships over the Internet or not, statistics indicate that social networking is here to stay. Increasingly, doctors, pilots, and other professionals are logging onto niche communities to chat with peers, download industry-specific content, and attract clients.

A recent poll commissioned by LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbel indicated that nearly 50 percent of attorneys are members of online social networks, and over 40 percent believe professional networking has the potential to change the business and practice of law over the next five years.

Environmental professionals (EPs) are the latest group to link up in cyberspace.

What's In It for EPs?
"Social networking is particularly beneficial for professionals who work in the environmental field, where science, technology, and regulations change constantly," says Barry Libert, co-author of the critically acclaimed social networking book We Are Smarter Than Me. "It's a fantastic way for people to connect without leaving the office. Environmental professionals can log on to sites dedicated to their field, chat with peers about the best way to approach an issue, answer questions posted by potential clients or colleagues, and learn about new technologies, regulations, and more. Because these sites are free and contain relevant industry information, they're a time- and cost-effective way of staying abreast of trends."

While environmental consulting companies have long known that paying attention to clients is critical, they're now finding that paying attention to peers pays dividends, too. Interacting with colleagues online can raise a company's profile and help it react to emerging trends in a timely fashion. And because members both use and supply information, topics stay relevant.

Sites typically offer the following features, which provide multiple benefits:

• Discussion boards. Members can post a topic of interest, answer a technical question, or start a new thread. The ability to network with a wide range of peers quickly and easily is especially beneficial for those with complex procedural questions.

• Blog. Reading the online diaries of industry leaders gives environmental professionals access to expert opinions on trends and late-breaking developments. Posting a comment allows the reader to interact directly with the blogger.

Original content. Have a question about meth lab cleanup? Looking for vapor intrusion regulations? Log on and download industry-specific white papers, articles, Webinars, etc.

Polls. These allow users to participate in market research and access valuable statistics, such as salary data.

Job postings. When asked about the future of the environmental industry, many professionals cite a lack of available talent as a growing problem. Job boards allow users to seek out the best candidates globally or scan the latest openings.

Most sites also allow users to post profiles. These lists of professional qualifications, which are public and searchable, are invaluable for brand-building. The benefits are not lost on environmental professionals like Alan Agadoni, a senior vice president with ATC Associates in Atlanta, who says he is encouraged by the number of people who are registering with environmental networking sites. "It shows that environmental consultants are eager to build a community in which they can learn and share ideas."

"For years, we have urged students in our Phase I ESA training classes never to stop learning, but resources have been limited," Agadoni continues. "Social networking sites are closing the knowledge gap between industry novices and experts by providing an open forum for candid discussions."

Although communities for environmental professionals are not yet as established as, say, those for physicians, early adopters like Sean Dundon, a principal with Blackstone Consulting in Portland, Maine, see their value.

Dundon says he found out about a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lead paint regulation from a social networking site dedicated to property due diligence. "Aside from that useful tidbit, I also found invaluable the discussion of what my peers consider a recognized environmental condition. A large cross section of consultants weighed in on that one! I've been logging in on a weekly, if not daily, basis."

Elizabeth Krol, P.G., a client program manager and Northeast due diligence manager for Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure Group in Hopkinton, Mass, agrees. "Social networking sites provide perspective into industry trends developing in the community," she says. "The insight is invaluable in a challenging economy. If you look closely, you can identify emerging changes in the marketplace and can plan your business strategy to capitalize on opportunities. Dedicated social networking sites are a key source of technical information. At the most basic level, users will find comfort in knowing what their peers are facing and what steps they're taking to adjust. Social networking sites can be mined as thoroughly and frequently as needed to meet a user's needs."

Ken Feldman, director of lender services for The Orin Group in Lyons, Colo., says he's already benefited from seeing how various regulations are interpreted by his peers and how they are approaching other topics of concern. "Online networking helps us all be consistent and see things from a different perspective we might not have considered. For all the independent contractors that firms share, no one is teaching them or passing on information, so this resource might be the only avenue available besides calling friends to find answers."

Eager to join? Here are a few to try.
commonground: The first online social network for business professionals concerned with property due diligence issues globally, commonground, at a little more than four months old, boasts over 1,500 members.

LinkedIn: An online network of more than 25 million professionals from around the world, LinkedIn allows users to swap job details and contact information, post questions, etc.

Twitter: A social media service that allows users to "follow" individuals with common interests and reply publicly, Twitter limits posts to 140 characters, but the information can prove invaluable.

Ning: Anyone can start a community using Ning.

Admittedly, it can take a while to feel comfortable networking online. It's a good idea to take a few days to lurk—that is, read posts without responding—before jumping in fully. Once you get a feel for a community's content, style, and tone, along with how it works, you'll likely feel more comfortable posting comments or starting a discussion thread. After a few sessions online, you'll probably feel at ease enough to become a regular contributor and consumer, and it undoubtedly won't be long before you reap the rewards of new-found contacts and information.

Privacy and Other Considerations
Despite the benefits, some professionals may be reluctant to join social networking sites for fear of disclosing sensitive information. Feldman understands the privacy issue but says that the idea of sharing information and resources has been around a long time. "Environmental professionals have to understand that helping each other—short of giving away confidential or client info—makes all of us look good. If we purposely avoid sharing information, it affects us all. There is of course the potential benefit of professional contacts and being visible and helpful, which looks good when you have to tap those folks for job leads or a job directly. Also, you never know when multiple firms might be working on a project together or reviewing your work, etc."

To protect yourself, confirm that a community is hosted by a trusted organization, and make sure it has a privacy policy and is monitored for quality. It should also put the community's needs first, rather than promoting a product or business. Remember:

• Make public only the personal details you want others to see. Be aware that it is virtually impossible to erase your digital footprint; even if you delete something, it may have been copied elsewhere.

• Periodically update your profile.

• Respect the privacy of others. Never publish pictures or personal information without their consent.

• Don't disclose sensitive company information.

Whether you're an old hat in using social media or an eager newbie, online communities are worth a look. "The historically traditional environmental and engineering consulting industry may not be taking full advantage yet of the opportunities posed by the world of wikis, communities, and collaboration," says Agadoni, "But there are many entrepreneurs in our industry who are excited by the possibilities."

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