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I’m on the cusp, probably a little too old to be doing this,” said Todd Senne. But as the 42-year-old president of Trilix Marketing Group heard more employees and clients ask about and start to use social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, he felt he needed to try it out to know what they were talking about. He started a Facebook account about two months ago and has ventured onto other sites from there.

Senne is one of a growing number of executives in Greater Des Moines who are starting to use online social media tools to enhance their professional and personal networks. Many are finding that these sites don’t replace traditional Rolodexes and lunch meetings, but enhance the way they already do business. The challenge, they say, is finding time and value in the many programs cropping up.

“I don’t think anyone predicted the Internet would be used for this type of social interaction,” said Dave Campbell, deputy editor of Wood magazine. “It used to be antisocial almost to be on a computer; now it’s the exact opposite. It’s a different kind of social. You’re not out having cocktails on the veranda on the patio bar, but you’re able to reach more people and keep in touch with more people than you can physically.”

Signing in

Campbell joined Facebook because his two teenagers were on it and he felt it would be a good way to keep tabs on them without being too intrusive. The night he signed up, he was awake until 2 a.m. trying to find everyone he knew.

It is like “getting Christmas cards every day,” he said, thanks to a feed that constantly updates what his friends are doing. “It’s not like I’m cutting edge, but it kind of makes me feel like I’m a little more hip.” At age 47, he has noticed more people in his age group embracing the program as well.

J. Barry Griswell, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, also joined Facebook because his children were on it. In just a couple of months, he has racked up an eclectic collection of nearly 100 “friends” (connections with other users) but has tried not to get too addicted, checking it maybe once a day. “Every once in a while, I find myself chatting with somebody, and the next thing you know, 30 to 40 minutes go by,” he said.

Mary Lawyer, president of the Downtown Community Alliance, started using LinkedIn more than a year ago to keep up-to-date on her business contacts, but recently her attention has shifted to connecting with high school, college and work peers on Facebook. She has nearly 300 friends on LinkedIn and 125 on Facebook.

“When I first joined, it was like this new strange tool and quite frankly, not a lot of colleagues had joined yet. Since then, everybody’s doing it,” she said.

For attorney J. Marc Ward, his social networking involvement has evolved from writing an LLC law blog for the past year to logging onto Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. The hardest part, he said, has been figuring out what each tool is best used for and keeping on top of it, especially with a blog that requires two to three hours of work for each twice-a-week post.

Finding value

Jim Langin, president of Bank Iowa’s West Des Moines and Johnston franchises, joined Facebook in December after a cousin in Philadelphia, whom he hadn’t spoken to in years, invited him to join. “What amazed me is probably within the hour of setting that up, I had 20 or 30 friend invites,” Langin said. Many of his friends are old high school buddies, and through them, he learned of his 20-year high school reunion.

This entrance into social media also has allowed him to better understand his employees, many of whom are of the Millennial generation and heavily involved in social media. But, Langin said, he still prefers face-to-face meetings and spoken communication as his main point of contact. He only logs onto Facebook maybe once a week.

“I don’t have the time to really spend much more time doing it,” he said.

Other executives also admit that they struggle to add these new activities to their already busy schedules.

Campbell has found himself checking his Facebook feed more often as his friends have increased to more than 200. Senne keeps his Twitter and Facebook browsers up on his computer screen all day.

Figuring out how to best use each platform has been a challenge as well. Though Senne has chosen to use Facebook strictly for personal contacts and LinkedIn and Twitter for more professional uses, Griswell has taken a different approach, using Facebook as a way to connect with lots of different people.

“One of the most interesting things there,” he said, “is how eclectic my friends are because of my wide connections, I guess. … For me it’s not a collection of people thinking alike.”

Twitter, a microblogging site that allows users to follow feeds of people’s “140 characters or fewer” status updates, has been more difficult for executives to figure out. Senne said it takes an investment in time to get something out of the program. So far, he has only 22 followers and posts maybe once a day.

Ward agreed: “Twitter can be a business tool, but you have to work at it to find your contacts. You have to stay on top of that one. It takes a lot of daily work.”

Ward, meanwhile, has struggled to use LinkedIn, which he said, “doesn’t seem to be proactive enough.” But he just joined a new Iowa Lawyer Network group through the site, and is curious to see what becomes of that. Campbell uses LinkedIn to look for business contacts, but “it’s just not as robust, in my opinion.”

Other top executives at major companies in Des Moines are not as involved in online social networks. Steve Lacy, president and CEO of Meredith Corp., is on LinkedIn but is not a regular user. A spokesman for Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield said CEO John Forsyth prefers one-on-one contact through e-mail and meetings, especially with employees.

Connecting

For many executives, Facebook seems to have led to the most contacts, and though many are personal connections, they say it could lead to business opportunities down the road. LinkedIn has served more as a professional network with detailed profiles of people’s work-related experience and contact information.

“You connect with all sorts of people in communities all over Iowa, and the really nice thing is it allows you to have this Rolodex that I don’t have to keep up-to-date.” Lawyer said.

The blog has had the greatest impact for Ward, with 25 to 30 hits a day during the workweek. It has forced him to stay on top of various legal issues and has helped him become known as a resource in the legal community.

Executives’ use of these social media platforms has led to support for initiatives within their companies as well.

The Downtown Community Alliance has about 4,800 users connected to its Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market fan page (a company-specific profile), and the group has set a goal this year to “make sure we’re strongly embedded in social media networks,” Lawyer said. Wood magazine has about 1,500 fans and is looking into a Twitter account and other applications, such as a quiz people can download and share with friends, with the goal of building consumers’ awareness of the magazine.

Griswell said the Community Foundation is looking at how to use these social networks to engage a younger generation to get involved in philanthropy. It plans to launch a Facebook fan page in the near future.

As Trilix has discussed redesigning its Web site, Senne said it has considered putting Twitter updates on the home page, which would boost search engine optimization and provide fresh content every time someone visits the site.

Langin said Bank Iowa is not looking at formally launching something on any of the sites.

Becoming pros

The purpose of each social media platform has come naturally, Ward said, but the challenge has been managing contacts, which he compares to weeding a garden. “You have to go through and pull out the (contacts) you know aren’t going to be helpful,” he said.

Campbell has struggled to figure out how to use these tools to benefit the magazine without competing with it and to utilize them well with limited staff. “We admit first and foremost we are a magazine but also recognize this is an area we need to be playing in,” he said.

Each social media program has its own expectations for how users will interact and post, Senne said. “After you get how it works down, then it’s figuring out the etiquette.”

But, he added, “It’s not nearly as hard and daunting as I thought it might be. It’s a little intimidating to learn all this, but it’s pretty simple to do. The hardest thing is content, staying up with it and making sure that you provide value.”

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