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Minding Your Manners Online: Eight Lessons in Netiquette

Author: Barry Libert
January, 2011 Issue

The basic rules of etiquette—even on a computer screen—have changed little since the legendary manners arbiter Emily Post reigned supreme.

The Internet is a big, limitless place where the rules of everyday life don’t always apply. You can be whomever you want to be and say whatever you want to say…right? Well actually, no, you can’t—or at least, you shouldn’t. Especially if your online presence is connected to your professional image. Just as there’s proper etiquette in the “real” world, there’s a right way and a wrong way to behave online. How you choose to communicate can have a very real impact on your relationships with employees, customers and partners.

It might surprise you to hear that “Netiquette,” as online etiquette has been dubbed, is a serious enough topic to warrant several books by Peter Post, great-grandson of the legendary manners arbiter Emily Post. It might surprise you even more to learn that the basic rules of etiquette—even on a computer screen—have changed little since the original Post reigned supreme.

Being considerate, respectful, and honest are crucial if you want today’s “social nation” to work for you and your business. But there’s a little more to Netiquette than that. Increasingly, the line between our personal and professional lives is becoming blurred, and information posted online can easily make the jump from one to the other. When used wisely, social media really can help you build high-quality professional relationships that will pay off for both parties offline. Following are eight etiquette lessons that will help you successfully develop a community of supporters who will help your business relationships prosper.

Pretend you’re offline

If you wouldn’t say it offline, don’t say it online. Many people behave as though what’s said online won’t have the same ramifications as it would in “real time.” If you believe that’s true, just talk to someone who’s been fired for a post. A basic rule of thumb is this: If you wouldn’t say it at work or at the gym or in the middle of a dinner party, don’t do it online.

Remember, it’s not all about you

While your family and close friends might be interested in just about every opinion and perspective you have to offer, the general public might not be. It’s important to engage others by providing information, ideas and products they’ll find helpful. People want to read about topics that will enhance their lives, businesses and knowledge, so provide them with information, tools and tips on subjects that interest them.

Don’t ignore spelling and grammar

Always bear in mind that what you write and how you write it is a reflection of who you are and what you care about. Think about it: Why would a potential employer want to hire someone who couldn’t be bothered to check spelling and punctuation in his or her résumé? Similarly, if a business demonstrates carelessness when communicating online, it could very well lead potential clients to wonder if that’s the level of sophistication and attention to detail the company demonstrates in all of its work.

Don’t hide behind social media

Words still matter as much online as they do in real time—and they stick around longer. When possible, avoid using social media as an easy out when you’re facing a tough conversation or want to spout off an annoyance. If you have something to say—and criticism is allowed and may even be warranted at times—say it with respect; and before you send it, be sure it’s something you’ll be willing to stand by in a week. On the flip side, don’t worry that one nasty online comment from a disgruntled customer will ruin your business. How you handle it may make all the difference.

Leave the sensational to someone else

When it comes to social media, it’s best to be honest and stick to the truth. Rumors and sensational posts may send readers flocking to you at first, but dishonesty and irresponsible behavior will ultimately come back to haunt you. Yes, in the heat of the moment, that sensational comment might seem like a good idea…but you might regret clicking “send” before all is said and done. It’s better to wait an hour—or maybe even a day—before launching your message.

Take control of yourself

Managing yourself smarter is important to your career as well as to your personal life. Everyone is tempted to cut corners or to gratuitously vent from time to time, but when you choose not to do those things online, you’re setting a good example for others from within your organization. Remember that if you do choose to post an ill-advised update, for example, you’ll be the one taking the rap for it.

Consider yourself a brand, and act accordingly

It really isn’t far-fetched to say that what you do online can impact your company’s brand, so bear in mind how you want others to perceive you and your organization—and let that influence your online presence. Remember that sharing can be your most powerful tool since it gives people something to relate to and comment on, but sharing too much or sharing inappropriately can be equally destructive.

Blog, but mind your manners

There are things to watch out for with blogs that aren’t really dangers with status updates and shorter information posts. Foremost is plagiarism—be very careful that you aren’t using someone else’s words or images without proper acknowledgement. Also, pay attention to the input you’re getting from your readers’ comments—sometimes longer blog posts spark more in-depth discussions than shorter updates. Oh—and don’t forget to have fun!

By following these basic rules, you’ll be one step closer to generating the results you seek: a more positive work environment, attaining and providing real value to your customers and a better brand for your company and yourself.

Barry Libert is the author of Social Nation: How to Harness the Power of Social Media to Attract Customers, Motivate Employees, and Grow Your Business. He’s chairman and CEO of Mzinga, a leading provider of social software, services and analytics that improve business performance. Libert has also been published in Newsweek, Smart Money, Barron’s, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and has appeared on CNN, CNBC and NPR.


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