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One of the biggest buzzwords photographers should pay attention to is relationship building. Social networking (not social media) is all about getting others to connect with us. That means we have to understand how to engage people who we’ve never met and have meaningful conversations about why they should book us. I recently wrote about the WHY of social networking, and this is the HOW.

While I am hardly the only PhotoBizCoach who talks about online engagement, I do take pride in sharing my Four Phases of Social Networking that take you from amateur to undeniable pro. I call it the social network STIR.

Phase One: Social Newbie
Nobody knows you yet; you have no credibility and lack a track record. The first step is to cut through media noise by finding the forum where someone will listen to you. Start a conversation or add to a current one by introducing a new idea or unique viewpoint, even if it contradicts accepted norms. Be prepared to be challenged by the forum’s social King and Queen Bees and established top contributors. You will have to prove that what you say is valuable by using real examples and a lot of grace. The key to surviving the social newbie phase is to respond to each and every challenge with patience and a consistent opinion. At no point can you make it personal. Stick to the issue like glue.

Phase Two: Total Silence
You’ve mastered the onslaught of non-believers and the first few rounds of the social network battle. Suddenly, things go eerily quiet. No comebacks, no comments, no engagement. You start to wonder if you said something that was so inappropriate or offensive that you are being ignored. Is this virtual silent treatment? Your task in this phase is to stay the course. Keep posting, keep asking good questions, keep commenting, keep doing what you’ve been doing. It may take a while to move onto the next phase, but understand this is the vetting process for others to test if you’re steadfast in what you say. At least they are not disagreeing with you. That’s good. They are watching you. They are listening. That’s even better.

Phase Three: Interaction Resumes
Little by little, two-way communication returns. Someone makes a comment on one of your posts, and another agrees with something you said. Next thing you know, you’ve earned a Top Contributor badge and your Klout Score goes up. You have been accepted into the tribe and now have a status worthy of followers.

Phase Four: Relationship Defense
The fourth phase is my absolute favorite. A social newbie will challenge something you said (just like you did in Phase One)—and one of your tribe members defends you! You know you’ve made it to this phase when your followers make sure others know you are the expert. They watch out for you and what you stand for, correct social newbies when they push you too hard, clarify misinterpretations on your behalf, and genuinely thank you for your awesomeness and contributions.

There are no shortcuts. You have to work your way through the social networking STIR formula to build relationships with virtual strangers and turn them into loyal supporters of your business. Which phase are you in right now?

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