The number of social networking tools has exploded to the point where some people have been tuning out altogether. There's even a term for it: social networking fatigue.

I'm not fatigued at all! For starters, I've been using LinkedIn to build a foundation of industry colleagues I can call on and count on. In some ways, this smart tool provides the same benefits as meeting in person: Once you're linked, it's a connection you can build on. No, it's not the same as face to face, but it's a worthwhile investment of your time to build and maintain your network — and when you're dealing with Gen X and Y colleagues, it's a necessity. There's also new research that shows that the number of 45- to 54-year-olds who participate in social networking sites like LinkedIn doubled from 12 percent in 2007 to 24 percent in 2008.

The LinkedIn groups are, in my opinion, the future of social networking. The Groups and Meetings Committee of the National Business Travel Association, of which I am a member, recently started one for people who are SMMP practitioners or who want to learn more (contact me for more info at bscofidio@meetingsnet.com). The niched nature of this group is a huge benefit for members and something it would be difficult to duplicate.

I use an online “Friends of the Magazine” focus group (which I plan to switch to a LinkedIn group) to develop the content for this magazine. Sure, a live focus group is a wonderful networking tool, but these days it's a luxury. This online group allows me to ask questions and get answers back the same day, so as a magazine we can be more responsive. I want to publicly thank my 2009 group — 32 strong (view the prestigious list at meetingsnet.com/corporatemeetingsincentives/news/cmi_2009_online_focus_group_0121/) — for their involvement and input.

Of course, we all still meet valuable contacts at industry events, but it's often more by chance than design. On page 29, Executive Editor Susan Hatch explores another class of social networking tools: meeting-specific ones, such as IntroNetworks and EventVue, that recommend attendees whom users might want to meet and help them connect. These networks typically go live well before the event and stay up long afterward, extending the reach of the meeting. If you haven't tried them at one of our industry meetings (medical meeting planners can join Pharma Planners Connect, a year-round networking tool created for the Pharmaceutical Meeting Management Forums, which are organized by CMI's sister publication Medical Meetings), why not give it a shot?

I invite you to join me on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com.

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Check out the blog: I'm on LinkedIn, Now What? at www.imonlinkedinnow.com. what.com