Networking: “a supportive system of sharing information and services among individuals and groups having a common interest.” – Source: dictionary.com
There have probably been times in your life when you needed support, guidance, or references. During these times you probably reached out to your network of family, friends, or business associates. A network is a group of people that you can turn to for your professional and personal needs. You may have several networks — one for business, one for your personal life, one for community activities, etc.
The concept of networking is not new. Most of us use networking on a daily basis without even realizing that is what we are doing. For instance, how many times have you recommended a dentist, attorney, housecleaning service or mechanic to a friend, relative or co-worker? Have you ever told someone about a fabulous new product or the excellent service you received at a restaurant? If so, you were networking.
Networking is NOT selling, nor does it involve cold calling. Networking is about building and nurturing business relationships. It provides you with the opportunity to meet new contacts, build business relationships, and gain new business.
So, how do you begin networking and where can you find groups or organizations that can help you reach your goals? In many ways, the keys to your success are right at your fingertips – literally. They are the keys on your computer keyboard.
Online networking has exploded in recent years. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of networking groups and business forums available on the world wide web. Through participation in these communities, entrepreneurs can make new contacts, gather information and feedback about products and services, and create a network of business associates unmatched in the off-line world.
By networking online, you are able to build relationships all over the world. This can be done any time of the day or night, any day of the week — at your convenience and on your schedule.
There are two types of online networks – business and social. Business networks are defined as: “a group of people with similar interests or concerns who interact and remain formal or informal contact for mutual assistance or support.”
Social networks are defined as: “a map of the relationships between individuals, indicating the ways in which they are connected through various social familiarities ranging from casual acquaintance to close familial bonds.”
Many entrepreneurs use social networks as a launching pad for their new business. Social networks provide a more casual environment where members build relationships by interacting with one another. Social networks are similar to having friends over to your house for a brainstorming session or to talk about daily events while you indulge in a cup of coffee.
There are many ways you can become involved in social or business networks. To begin, you will want to spend time researching the various networks to determine which ones suit your needs. Some of the more popular social networks include facebook, Linkedin, Google Plus and Twitter.
When you join a social networking group, the first thing you will need to do is create a profile. In your profile you can include information about your business and the products or services you offer. You can upload photographs, insert quotes, post goals, favorite books or music, and more.
Social networks consist of multiple groups. Groups are generally focused on one main topic. For instance, you might find a group dedicated to gardening, one for mountain climbing, and another for motorcycle enthusiasts. Well-established social networks have groups on just about every topic known to man, so chances are good you will find something that appeals to you.
Generally, members are able to create their own group if they desire. Hosting your own group provides you with the opportunity to share your expertise with members and establish yourself as an expert in your field.
You can join other members’ groups and interact with people on a one-to-one basis. As your relationships grow, chances are you will continue your relationship with some of the members off-line.
Be cautious when joining on-line networking groups. Do not give out your personal information. Most of the social and business networks provide built-in safety measures that give you total control over what information you allow to be seen by the public.
When setting up your profile, keep it professional. Do not include photos of your spouse or children. If you haven’t already done so, have a professional photo taken that projects your professional image. Although it’s an ugly truth, people judge you based on your appearance. In an online environment, your photo is the first impression, so take every effort to put your best face forward.
When you write your bio, talk about your company, but do it on a personal level. Tell your story about why you started it, what it means to you, the benefits your products or service provide. Let people know what you need. For instance, if you are just starting out and could use the help of an accountant or web designer, let people know. Instead of saying “I’m just starting out and am looking for a part-time accountant” you could say “Due to an increase in my business, I find that I do not have time for accounting duties. I am looking for someone to take over this position. Please contact me if you, or someone you know, would like to know more.” This is how you begin to network with others in the group. Keep your bio professional, yet personal.
While you will be tempted to join many groups, think before you leap. One of the pitfalls of social networking is it becomes very easy to socialize. You’re making new contacts. Your energy is high and you’re excited. You’re getting yourself out there and people are paying attention. However, if you join a lot of groups and attempt to keep up with interaction in each group, you’ll soon discover that is the only thing you are getting done. It defeats your purpose. Choose groups wisely and contribute worthy information.
You may also be tempted to join multiple social or business networks. The same holds true here. Research the various networks available, than decide which one you feel most connected to. Create your presence through a few select groups and then spread your wings. It is a fine balance that you need to keep a close eye on to ensure it doesn’t consume all of your time.
You should be aware that strange things occur in social and business networks. There are many people who have not mastered communication skills; particularly through written words. This leads to many heated discussions. Other times, people are just downright rude. Some people are argumentative by nature. There are people who ignore networking rules and advertise or hard sell their business. The reputation that you build in a social or business networking environment can make or break you.
Whenever you post information in a public forum, it can be seen by anyone. Search engines pick up forum posts and they are cataloged just like any other Web site. If you are attempting to build your business and allow yourself to get caught up in an ugly exchange in a forum, it can come back to haunt you. Let’s say someone types your name into a search engine because they are interested in your product. While searching for you, they find a link to a post where you are engaged in a heated debate. Do you think they are going to buy your product once they see you engaging in unprofessional behavior? Probably not. Always put your best foot forward in a public forum and never allow yourself to get caught up in the drama.
Online business networks are similar to social networks in that they provide multiple forums focused on niche topics. Business networks are focused solely on conducting business. There is little, if any, social interaction. This doesn’t mean you won’t build relationships with the members. You will. They will just be on a different level.
With social networking, you are using a soft sell approach by building friendly relationships. With business networking, you are able to get down to business and talk to others who have “been there, done that.” Business networks are an excellent place to locate valuable information and connect with others who have the services or products you are seeking. They also can help connect you with people who need yours.
You will want to create a biography that provides important information about your business — including your vision and mission statement. You might want to use the information you wrote in the Executive Summary of your business plan.
Research the various networks and join the ones that provide the information you are seeking. Take time to introduce yourself as a new member to the group. It’s best to keep things short and concise in the beginning, as opposed to sharing your life story the first time you speak to the group.
One of the best ways to establish yourself as an expert is to always provide useful information when you post. Oftentimes people will engage in a forum thread by saying things like “I agree” or “You go, girl.” It adds no value to the conversation and takes away valuable time from the members. While it’s important to interact, it’s even more important to say something worthwhile.
Online social and business networking groups can help you build your business. Just follow the rules, be respectful, engage in meaningful conversation, and keep a watchful eye on how much time you spend there.
While online networking provides many benefits including 24-hour access and international contacts, it’s also a good idea to engage in person-to-person networking. Your local Chamber of Commerce is a great place to start. You can locate your local Chamber by visiting www.ChamberOfCommerce.com.
Most Chambers host a monthly meeting for their members. This gives you an opportunity to meet other members and build relationships. When you attend business networking meetings, it is best if you spend more time listening than talking. Get to know the others. Talk to them about their business. Ask them what they need or are looking for. Jot notes on the back of their business card.
In order to be successful, you must network on some level. Otherwise, how will anyone ever know that your business exists? If you are uncomfortable networking in person, join a social or business network. If you are shy, invite a friend to go with you to your first Chamber meeting. Everyone has been the “newbie” at one point in time. Regardless of where you network, chances are great that you will be welcomed with open arms.