by David Bohl
The practice of networking is one of those essential elements of life we often take for granted, since we do it naturally. Essentially, I see networking as connecting with people, exchanging ideas, and building relationships. Since early man, networking has been a practical tool for forming alliances with others to trade and share resources. Today networking can be a business marketing tool or a way for people to connect for social purposes.
I know some businesses that use networking as their exclusive marketing vehicle. It’s a highly effective way for people to build relationships for mutual benefit to either do business directly or to refer business. We’ve all heard the saying, “it’s not what you know but who you know.” Well, networking gives us an opportunity to meet those who can be influential to our business. And I’m sure you’ve also heard that people like to do business with people they “know, like, and trust.” Through networking, you can build the “know, like, and trust” factor as you meet and work with people on an ongoing basis.
Socially, people network to meet others with similar interests whether for friendships or romantic relationships. You might be looking for a tennis partner, so you would network at an open house at the local gym or tennis club. Maybe you need a bridge player for your group, so you send out the message across your networks. Single people network to meet compatible dating partners or new friends to share activities with.
Until recently, networking has been the exclusive domain of the real world. That is, we network at clubs, Chambers of Commerce, restaurants, bookstores, gyms, or wherever we expect to find the kinds of people we’re looking for. Today, however, the Internet has all but taken over the domain of networking.
Take for example, MeetUp.com. Here you can find a group that meets just about any interest you have, whether personal or professional. From arts, entertainment, games, and hobbies to personal growth, business building, health and fitness, there’s a MeetUp group for you. It’s all free and although the groups meet locally, you do all your searching online and get your invitations in your email.
Then of course, you’ll find the majority of networking online is done through the social media or social networking sites, like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Almost everyone who is online is familiar with at least one of these sites. MySpace launched around 10 years ago and was strictly for personal use–although some businesses do have a MySpace page. Imagine connecting with former classmates you haven’t seen for 20 years. Or making “friends” with people all over the globe living in places you may never visit.
Because of the huge popularity of the early social sites, business networking sites jumped in to take business networking online. No more chicken dinners at your local Chamber of Commerce. No more dressing in suits and high heels. Now you can meet your clients, prospects, and business associates without leaving the comfort of your office. LinkedIn, Plaxo Pulse, FastPitch, gibLink, and Facebook all allow members to do business online. Although Facebook began as a site for college students, it diversified as businesses joined in to make the most of its expansive network.
I see one of the primary advantages of online networking as being able to target who you want to meet, and having a huge pool of people to meet from all over the world. You not only save time but money, since most sites are free to join. Instead of the time it takes to get dressed, drive to a destination, and shake hands or have drinks with a number of people before meeting anyone of value for your purposes, in 15 minutes a day, you can make valuable connections quickly and easily. That is, once you get the hang of it and find the right sites and the right way to navigate them. Here are some tips to help improve your online networking efforts.
1. Select the best sites for your purpose.
Find the sites that meet your social or business needs. Don’t waste time on sites that are not what you’re looking for, and don’t sign up on too many sites. You won’t be able to keep up with more than a couple of sites. For the best results stick to a few top sites and work them actively.
2. Get familiar with all the features of each site.
Most sites have similar features such as a profile, a directory, classified ads, forums, groups, and more. With social sites you can search for people with similar interests, in your local area, or just do random searches for interesting people. With business sites, you can build your list of “friends” who may be prospects, clients, or business associates, start a group or join a group in your industry, announce events, and chat in forums. Some business sites like gibLink allow promotion and with others you need to be more subtle. As you familiarize yourself with the features, you’ll find the ones that work best for you.
3. Find time to check in regularly.
Even 15 minutes per day can keep you up to date with your online networking. Respond to friends’ requests and messages, check the chat boards, upload an event, or post a message to your group. If you don’t log in for weeks at a time, you lose the momentum that it takes to build relationships. You’ll build stronger relationships by being active, responsive, and helpful. Eventually your efforts will yield results–new friends or new business, or both!