There are countless online networking activities we could participate in but it's not always clear which online networking sites are truly beneficial. Plus, it can be difficult to figure out how much time we should devote to online networking in order for it to be effective.

One of the things that's changed over the last five or six years is that people no longer trust the experts very much; instead we trust our peers. Therefore--in order to try to get some answers to our questions about how much time we should spend networking and where we should network (face-to-face and online)--we thought the best thing route would be to ask our colleagues.

So last autumn we created a questionnaire, asking people like ourselves how much time they spent networking, what specific marketing tools they used and how they balanced online and real world networking. The last questions we asked pertained to how they liked to network, which events worked best, what size group proved was most beneficial for them and how the process of trust development played out. In the end, 650 people completed the questionnaire; mostly entrepreneurs found through BNI, Ecademy or LinkedIn.

The results of the questionnaire provide very useful information to consider when contemplating a networking strategy.

  • The average amount of time business owners spend promoting their business is 12-15 hours. Promotion activities include everything from sales to networking to online and conventional marketing.
  • While face-to-face networking activity proved to be overwhelmingly important to respondents, it's also clear that LinkedIn has become an important networking tool, especially for small businesses.
  • Other popular tools include workshops, PR, online advertising, and e-mail (more than 25 percent of respondents did one or all of these activities regularly or said they depended on them).
  • On the internet side of networking, LinkedIn and Ecademy were favored sites. In the physical world, BNI and other structured events seem to be where people are focusing their networking efforts.

Most people reported that they prefer to network in groups of 20 to 40 people, but there were some that reported a preference for much larger groups. Larger networking groups appear to be more popular among employees of larger companies, European companies, high growth and global companies.

The people who most effectively utilize online media are also good face to face networkers; it seems they're using technology to as an alternative to conventional growth business models.

We also investigated the effects of scalability--whether or not the business is limited by demand rather than its ability to supply or whether a local, national or global orientation has any effect on how people network. It turns out whether or not the business considers itself local (defined as getting 80 percent of its business within a 50 mile radius) or national in scope has a pronounced effect on networking strategies.

Entrepreneurs that think of their companies as national are:

  • Twice as likely to use LinkedIn; 40 percent vs. 20 percent,
  • More likely to use Twitter; 10 percent vs. 2 percent,
  • Twice as likely to use online social networks; 30 percent vs. 15 percent,
  • More than twice as likely to have a blog; 25 percent vs. 10 percent,
  • More likely to value chance encounters; 22 percent vs. 14 percent,
  • Three times as likely to prefer big networking groups of 100 to 1000 members; 16 percent vs. 5 percent.

Thomas Power, chairman of Ecademy, says the key challenge in marketing is to meet and become liked by the 50 people who can most affect your business. An analysis of the data from our survey suggests if you have a local, non-scalable business--like a small, community-oriented organic vegetable business--you can better find those 50 people by conventional, local networking.

However, if you're trying to promote ideas or scalable services nationally, you'll benefit from the random connections that internet networking offers.

Our survey also revealed commonalities across the various groups. All networkers spoke of the importance of a core, local support group. Further, most people prefer to face-to-face networking groups of 20 to 30 individuals.

In addition, all survey participants believe that trust is generated by listening, practicing Givers Gain and following up with people quickly. A good reputation is based on the opinions of others, evidence of enthusiasm and commitment and the ability to give referrals before expecting them.

Most important to building a good reputation--you must develop the characteristic of clarity. Be clear about what you do, what you stand for and what benefits you and your business offers people who might use your services. Only after peers like you, trust you and clearly know what you do will they give you referrals; regardless of whether you're dealing in online or face-to-face networking.

Since the overwhelming majority of our survey respondents offer business services, and since most business in that industry comes by referral or recommendation, this is real food for thought.

So, where does your business fit into these findings? Do you feel that spending more time online would benefit you or not?

Lisa Harris is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Southampton. She has completed a number of research projects with Alan Rae investigating how early adopters of new technology are using Web 2.0 tools to 'punch above their weight' through a combination of online and offline promotion, collaboration and networking. She can be contacted at l.j.harris@soton.ac.uk.

Alan Rae is Managing Partner at Ai Consultants, the research and consultancy arm of Free Spirits Ltd. Alan has run small businesses in IT, business training and research since 1981 and uses his expertise to teach small companies how to use internet related tools to improve their operations and marketing. He has developed training and information packages for the EU, the British government and schools at several British universities. For more information visit http://blog.howtodobusiness.com.