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Give Your Online Network a Real-World Foundation

Many well-established face-to-face networking businesses have developed their own online components, and many online networks have naturally evolved to regional groups that meet in person on a regular or sporadic basis.

As most of the country's top networking experts agree, an online network can grow faster and have longer life if the network offers its members face-to-face meeting opportunities, making the networking more "real" at a fundamental level. And those networks that have traditionally only met in person can extend relationships by adding an online component.

"A network is tribal," says Elliott Masie, CEO of the Masie Center & Learning Consortium. "People want to know who their chief is. Facebook started at Harvard because [founder] Mark Zuckerberg was at Harvard. A successful online network is a manifestation and construction of a network that already exists outside.it has to have 'street cred'."

In a network for entrepreneurs, having an offline component can be an excellent way to keep the venture relevant and valuable to members. Ivan Misner, Entrepeneur.com columnist and founder of BNI, the world's largest networking group, says that, where most members are entrepreneurs, "Networks that merge online and face-to-face networking are the wave of the future, and have the greatest chance of success in the long term."

Meeting offline solidifies relationships forged online
Online networks that build or encourage a face-to-face component will help solidify relationships, and give members a further reason to grow and develop within the network. There are so many networks available now, catering to almost every possible interest. Participation take time, a valuable commodity today. Why would a person choose to be part of one community over another? Myra Norton, CEO of Community Analytics, a research organization that focuses on mapping influence networks among all kinds of audiences, feels that online networks have become what websites used to be: A "dime a dozen."

"Why would I choose a particular site versus the countless others out there?" asks Norton. "In [online communities], content does provide a big piece, but it is also--and perhaps even more--about the relationships I am able to build and nurture there.

"I need to have some trusted relationship that says this is a valuable network to participate in. Yes, you can form some connections and trust through a person you have met purely online, but it is definitely not the same as meeting someone in person."

When it doesn't work
There are some pitfalls that anyone wanting to start a group with both an online and offline component should consider. In the case of an existing online community, if the member count is relatively small and spread out, the opportunities for meeting in person may be limited at best, and impossible at worst.

Difficulties can also arise if participants in an offline network are hesitant to go online. A case in point is the following case study of a women's networking group that was formed in New York City in late 2008. The co-founders envisioned a bi-weekly morning meeting, from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., due to the potential members' busy schedules (and participation in other networking groups). The concept was to supplement the in-person meetings with active participation of the members in a closed (invitation-only) Facebook group.

However, while the group quickly amassed several members, all of whom embraced what they felt was the safe, nurturing atmosphere of the women-only platform, a problem occurred when the co-founders tried to grow the Facebook component of the group. Many of the members were at or over middle age, and not comfortable joining Facebook, concerned that their private information was going to be visible to everyone. While the co-founders were careful to educate the members about the many privacy settings, and the closed nature of the group, only about 15 percent of the members joined the Facebook group (and of those, less than a quarter participated in the forums or discussions to any extent). The group only lasted about six months, as the hour-long, bi-weekly meetings were not enough to sustain the group.

A successful merger of online and offline networking depends on the nature of the network and its participants. Any network, online or offline, is about getting members to connect--and stay connected. The best way to do that is by capitalizing on relationships that already exist and really mean something to people. Networks that can do that are going to be around for a long time.

Julien Sharp is the author of Design and Launch an Online Networking Business in a Week, and a contributing author to Masters of Sales: Secrets From Top Sales Professionals That Will Transform You Into A World Class Salesperson by Ivan Misner, PhD and Don Morgan, MA, both available from Entrepreneur Press.

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