Unlike social networking sites that usually allow anyone to participate and cover a wide variety of topics and activities, professional networking services are more specialized and tailored to the needs and preferences of professional adults.

If you are interested in advancing your career or business through online professional networking, the 24HourSupport.com Communities experts have prepared the tips below to help you get started.

Choose a Professional Networking Site
To maximize your networking efforts, take a moment to research the sites that are relevant for your current field or business interests. At the end of this article, you will find links to several popular professional networking sites. You may also find sites that are specific to your profession or location by conducting a search for local business groups or professional associations. Next, study the rules and fees associated with the site. Request a free trial, if possible, so that you can preview the profiles of other members and see if the site is a good fit for you.

Create a Good First Impression with Your Profile
Once you’ve selected the service or services you want to participate in and completed your registration, the next step is to create your profile. Your professional profile is the equivalent of your digital business card. Your profile is your first chance to make a good impression on future contacts.

Take time to fill in the details on your profile, as doing so shows your attention to detail and increases the chance that a potential member of your professional network will find something you have in common that can help each of you advance your business and career.

Receiving and Giving Introductions
Once you have joined an online professional network and completed your profile, you are ready to begin adding contacts to your personal network. Begin by contacting your existing professional network, informing them of your participation in a professional networking service and inviting them to become a member of your network. Then, you can begin requesting introductions to other professionals you’d like to speak with or meet.

When you do receive an introduction to a new contact, remember that this is a professional activity, not a personal or social activity. You must be sure to explain to your new contact the business benefits of connecting with you online. Your invitation to connect should be personable and engaging, but still clearly and concisely explain your goals for networking relationships.

Also, remember to graciously thank the person who made the introduction and vouched for you with your new contact. You should also take a moment to learn about their goals for networking and what direction their career is headed so that you may be able to return the favor by introducing them to a valuable contact in the near future.

Play by the Rules
When you signed up to participate in an online networking group, you agreed to a set of terms, conditions and rules that govern your use of the site and the service. Usually, these agreements prohibit you from sending any spam, blatant sales messages or multilevel marketing pitches to other members of the group. These terms and conditions may also specify what topics of conversation and language is acceptable in discussion forums or on your profile. Be careful to observe these rules at all times, or you could compromise your professional reputation, be barred from the service, forfeit any participation fees you may have paid, or even face legal action.

Yes, playing by the rules also means abiding by the Golden Rule. Always consider how you would want to be treated in a given situation and remember to follow through on all promises you make. While some of the customs of offline professional networking are harder to adapt to online networking, the principles remain the same. For more information on networking etiquette, please refer to this human resources article.

Networking for Employment or Investment
If your networking goal is to seek employment or raise funds for a business venture, say so. If you ask your contacts for introductions to other professionals under false pretenses, then you will quickly develop a reputation for being untrustworthy. If you are seeking work or investors, being very clear about what you want and how you intend to approach newly introduced contacts will give other professionals a better idea of what you want and what you may be able to give in return.  Additionally, if you are networking for employement purposes, job-seeker services such as TheLadders, Monster and CareerBuilder often provide opportunities for their users to network and participate in job fairs.

Remember to Protect Your Privacy
While you’re enjoying the process of creating a profile and connecting with professional contacts, it’s important to remember that your privacy could be compromised. For safety’s sake, consider customizing the privacy settings on the social networks you use so that your sensitive information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Check the Help section of the networks you participate in, or refer to this PC World article for more tips on protecting yourself while networking online.

Professional Networking Resources

LinkedIn.com: This site helps professionals be more effective in their daily work and open doors to new opportunities by leveraging existing relationships. A LinkedIn profile helps you find and be found by former colleagues, clients, and partners.

Sermo.com: In this physicians-only professional community, the goal isn’t to network in an effort to increase revenues or find a business partner. Sermo.com helps physicians network to share observations from their daily practice, challenge or corroborate the opinions of others and share insight on new treatments and medications.

Marketing Nirvana: This site was created by blogger Mario Sundar, a member of LinkedIn.com, and includes helpful tips and interesting discussions of professional vs. social networking, your Google identity and using blogs and online networking to find the perfect job.