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Innovation Economy

In social media age, cold calls can freeze you out

Hi, this is Scott Kirsner, and I’m calling to gauge your interest in an incredibly enlightening column about cold-calling that will set you back a mere $3.50 as part of today’s Boston Globe.

No one likes making cold calls, or firing off cold e-mails. No one likes receiving them. And in the age of caller ID and automatic inbox filtering, pitching yourself, your product, or your start-up idea without some sort of “warm” connection to the recipient is increasingly like tossing a small stone into a very deep well.

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“With LinkedIn and blogs and Twitter, there are just so many ways to understand who you’re trying to talk to, like a human resources executive, and how people are connected to one another, that there’s really not much excuse for a cold call nowadays,” says Paul Blumenfeld, a partner at the recruiting firm Genero Search Group in Arlington.

So what are you supposed to do if you’re a job seeker, an entrepreneur hunting for money, or an employee trying to scare up customers or business partners? Here is some advice about coming in warm, not cold, when it comes to making an initial connection with someone.

Make sure your LinkedIn network represents everyone you know in real life — and not too many people you once bumped into in a buffet line. LinkedIn is a great way to figure out who you know that can introduce you to someone at a particular company, but only if your list of contacts is comprehensive and accurate, says David Gowel, CEO of RockTech, a Cambridge company that sells LinkedIn training software.

When you’re researching a prospective employer, or trying to get an introduction, you can query LinkedIn to see who you know inside the company. Gowel also recommends creating an automated search on LinkedIn, which sends an e-mail to let you know if any contacts have joined a particular company you are tracking.

Grow your network. The best way to meet new people is to attend networking events tied to your industry — or one you’re hoping to break into. Diane Darling, author of the book “Networking for Career Success,” says the number one reason people don’t go to events is “they don’t want to arrive alone or walk around alone. So bring a friend.” Ask people you know at an event who else you should meet, make whatever introductions you can, and dispense plenty of compliments. (Speakers always like to hear about parts of a keynote speech or panel discussion you enjoyed.)

Stay in touch. Getting a business card or adding someone to your LinkedIn network should be the start of the relationship. Follow up on a first meeting by sending them a link to a website or app you discussed. “People interested in our company occasionally will let me know they saw a certain article about our industry,” says Michael Feinstein, vice president of sales at Digital Lumens, a Boston company that sells energy-efficient lighting systems. “What’s even better is when they refer someone they know to us who might be right for a position that we have open.”

Darling calls it “making deposits to the netbank,” or networking bank. You want to be helpful to people in your network before you need to ask them for a favor — like an introduction.

Don’t be afraid of a little (authentic) name-dropping. If you’re calling or e-mailing someone, the surest way to secure a slice of their time is to mention that someone they know suggested you get in touch, says Blumenfeld. (I often use a subject line like “Paul sent me,” to highlight the connection.)

But don’t try to fake it, because people will check. “We just made an investment in a company whose chief revenue officer first got in touch with us by saying that she knew one of the investors that puts money into our fund,” says venture capitalist Liam Donohue of .406 Ventures in Boston. “But the first thing I did was call that investor and ask what they thought of the person and the company.”

Donohue says that even when he’s not moving ahead with an investment in a company, he’s sometimes asked to help with connections to other venture capitalists that might be more interested — and he usually consents.

Build up your profile in social media. These days, “it feels like the digital imprint is a precursor to a live connection you want to make,” says Risa Pecoraro, a manager responsible for tech hiring at Homesite Insurance in Boston.

By that, she means when you establish yourself as knowledgeable and accomplished using services like Twitter, GitHub, Dribbble, or Smarterer — or by blogging thoughtfully — you’re no longer just an anonymous name on the phone or in the inbox.

Often, people Google your name while you’re talking. Perhaps you’ve even built up enough of a reputation that the person you’re trying to contact already follows you on Twitter, or is aware of your blog. Sharing or retweeting Twitter messages from an individual you’re trying to meet, or commenting on what they’ve written on a blog, is another good way to become a known quantity before making a first call.

Feinstein tells a funny story about someone pitching him on outsourced cold-calling services, to help the company identify prospective customers.

“The person got a warm intro to me through someone I know,” he says. “And then, during the meeting, he admitted that he’d tried to cold call me, but couldn’t get through.”

Feinstein still didn’t hire the firm. “In the end,” he says, “I’m a pretty tough customer.”

That’s true of just about everyone these days.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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