A few years ago, the prevailing wisdom about using social media to network with industry peers was that LinkedIn was the only appropriate platform on which to connect. This would usually involve sending a rather stiff, cover letter-like message to a potential connection with whom you wanted to connect.

Of course, in order to connect on LinkedIn, you have to declare the nature of your relationship in a dropdown menu where you select where you might know them from (work, school, associations, etc.). That entirely defeats the purported purpose of LinkedIn, which is making new connections.

Okay, maybe not the entire purpose, but come on--everyone loves a joke about LinkedIn.

Fortunately, other social networks have lost much of their formality when it comes to making direct contact with people in your industry with whom you want to connect. Twitter and Facebook used to be destinations where you cringed at the idea of people seeing if you were trying to make a strong and positive impression. Today, most people have become savvy to the fact that people can see what you're posting and that it's a reflection of your personality, your career, and your values. Your social networks tell them more than a stale message or business profile can.

In other words: With the right privacy controls and a reasonable filter on your latest political or social issue opinion, using sites like Twitter and Facebook to network has become a savvy way to connect.

There's a lot of social media etiquette material out there on the web, so I won't give you a full primer. But I will introduce these three basic key elements:

  1. Pace Yourself. When you find the various handles of the VC head you'd love a meeting with, don't go out and follow all of their accounts. Start with Twitter and engage with a few tweets publicly, as opposed in their direct messages (DMs), then...
  2. Wait For Reciprocity. If the person doesn't follow you back or engage, don't keep engaging. (They're just not that into you...or maybe just not that into Twitter. Either way, chill out.) If they do engage often, feel free to add on other social networks.
  3. Don't Go Overboard. Having a good rapport going in a DM conversation is not carte blanche to use that person's DMs for every random thought you have or to take the place of official invitations and calendar invites if things progress to meeting.

Though the benefits of connecting on social media with potentially advantageous contacts are many, the two critical ones boil down to you proving your authenticity and offering you a natural platform with which to engage with their authenticity. In a traditional networking email request, you look like a headshot, some industry jargon, and possibly desperation.

On Twitter, you look like someone engaged with the latest news across topics and who understands memes. On Instagram, you look like someone who takes tasteful vacations and loves their cat. On Facebook, you look like someone who loves their family. For as much flack as social media gets, in the aggregate, they really do show you as a real, whole person.

On the other side of this equation are all the profiles of your intended contact: not an ATM with a human face, but a human being living a rich and complex life. You see them going on occasional Twitter rants about frivolous funding rounds, sharing their love of great tech essays and photos from nature, and doting on their college-aged kids.

With all of that information, you have likely developed not only more empathy for this person than when you thought they might be a funder or conduit to a contract or a new hire and will have more natural, authentic ways of engaging them. When they post an article, you have a chance not only to share your mutual interest but get a better sense of what kind of reading this person does and therefore what ideas and styles engage them.

Social media is also a great space in which to prove yourself valuable: If they post something seeking a piece of information and you can find it for them, you're not just some avatar that keeps liking his Tesla jokes, you're a thoughtful, helpful human. The opportunities for reciprocity are endless once you've established key relationships on social media and understand the boundaries.

It takes longer to cultivate these relationships than writing a cover letter, but be honest: How many cover letters have you ever read that made you want to be someone's actual friend?

Published on: Apr 24, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.