Unsurprisingly perhaps, social networking sites suffer from our desire to categorise everything in our life. Thus it is common for people to automatically see LinkedIn as a business only network and Facebook as a personal site. Twitter, Google Plus and Pinterest perhaps lie somewhere in the middle.
But how appropriate is such pigeon-holing? Have the lines between our work lives and our play time blurred in the modern, hyper-connected world? Or should we be fighting to maintain such distinctions?
I'm afraid that there are no simple answers. Indeed, I still struggle with this myself to a large degree. There are different arguments with equal validity and it is up to each individual to decide what is right for them. Much will depend on what you do for your living and how comfortable you are socialising with your professional colleagues or discussing work with family and friends.
While I might not have the answers, perhaps I can spark a few thoughts and shake up some preconceptions. Here's some food for thought:
1. Don't assume that you know where opportunities lie in your network
However much I struggle with the balance between the personal and professional mix on social networks, I do believe that there is a mix. By isolating your friends and family from your colleagues and associates you could miss out on tremendous opportunities to support your network, or to allow them to get to know and/or support you.
I meet a lot of people who don't connect with personal contacts on LinkedIn. Yet aren't our friends and family the people most motivated to help and support our careers or our businesses. If you genuinely like and trust someone, why wouldn't you connect with them? Why would you connect with a stranger but not a friend?
Your dream client or employer may be connected to someone in your close personal network, someone who would really want to help you succeed. By excluding them from your LinkedIn network you may never uncover that connection.
2. Allow yourself to be friends with your colleagues
Similarly, many people won't connect with work contacts on Facebook. I do believe that our professional relationships have changed over the years and it is more acceptable for friendships to develop between client and supplier, between colleagues and between competitors.
Of course there are limits. I'm not suggesting that you open up your Facebook friendships to everyone with whom you exchange a business card. However, where you really have a rapport and enjoy time with a business associate, it might be worth considering.
Perhaps that is more comfortable for entrepreneurs befriending similar people they know through networking activities than for a salesperson with his or her clients or manager. I have some clients as Facebook friends, but not many. I tend to know where it feels appropriate and/or comfortable.
Whatever you choose, be sensible about what you share on Facebook. Whether or not I am connected, my simple rule of thumb is not to share anything that I wouldn't be comfortable with my clients, or prospective clients, seeing. Indeed, I endeavour not to behave in a way that would embarrass me elsewhere anyway.
3. Should you separate your personal and professional profiles on sites like Facebook and Twitter?
Here's the question I really struggle with! I can see both sides of the argument.
Like many people I've learnt to use Facebook and Twitter through trial and error...and I'm still on that journey.
Originally I had just the one profile on Facebook and a business page. When I received friend requests I would point them to my business page but I was always aware that the relationship on a business page is one way - I don't see my 'Followers' updates in my news feed. A 'Friend' relationship allows for more two-way engagement.
About three years ago I decided to split my profile. A lot of my friends felt that there were too many business posts on my newsfeed and I wanted to share more of my personal life with them. In fact, what has happened, is that I tend to post on the personal profile very infrequently and share a lot of my personal life on my business profile. I'm now thinking of going back to just the one profile for all.
Why has that happened? I seem to get much more engagement from personal updates and discussions than from posting blogs and networking tips onto my profile. My professional network gets to know me much better while my friends and family see the occasional business update which lets them know what I'm up to and provokes their interest without ramming my work down their throats.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, my business tweets, such as networking tips and links to blogs, seem to get much more traction and interest than personal updates.
I recently interviewed the Canadian speaker and customer engagement expert Toni Newman about how you get the balance right. Toni suggested a ratio of 95% business updates to 5% personal, whereas I find that the ratio that works for me is almost the reverse of that.
What was particularly striking about Toni's advice, however, was the split between 'value and vanity' and the three opportunities to connect with people:
1. Through an emotion that you want associated with your brand
2 Providing learning and insight
3 Creating a perception of your ability to deliver on your brand promise.
These three opportunities to connect can drive your personal/professional balance. I would argue that my personal updates reflect my brand. For example, it means a lot when people tell me that they believe I am authentic when I speak or write. Sharing my personal interests and thoughts reinforces that part of my personal brand.
I also am aware of the reflection of those updates and conversations against what I stand for. Failure to engage with people or chasing mass connections would not reflect well on my professional message of 'Connecting is not Enough'. Similarly, just posting adverts for my books, CDs and services would be a disconnect with my message of 'Pursue the relationship, not the sale'.
If you're a motivational speaker or professional coach who extolls the virtue of a positive outlook, it wouldn't serve you well to post complaints about your life or moan about other people.
And always ask yourself if you're adding value. Is what you're sharing going to make people laugh, cry, smile, understand or improve?
I'll be honest, I don't know what the right answer is and I don't know how close I am to making my own social networking engagement work for me. But I hope that these thoughts and my interview with Toni provide you with some food for thought, and I'd love to hear your own thoughts and your own approach.
There's one thing I am sure of. It's not black and white. Just as you are the same person whether you're at work or play, each social networking site you join doesn't fit snugly into one category or another.