In my book, The World's Best Known Marketing Secret, which was written in the mid-90s, I discussed the six types of networks in which you should consider participating: casual-contact networks, strong-contact networks, professional associations, service clubs, social organizations, and women's business organizations. If I were writing that book today, I'd definitely add another network that's grown substantially in the past few years: online networks.
When it comes to online networking, there are several ways to develop your word-of-mouth marketing, but it's important to understand that the foundation of making online networking work for you is the same as with any kind of networking--you've got to develop relationships with trusted business associates.
How, then, do you go about developing networking skills, relationships and trust in an online environment? Here are five ways to do it:
1. Join one or more online networking communities. If you're not sure where to start, I'd recommend Ecademy. No matter which community you choose, however, after joining, you need to participate in whatever way you can to best grow your presence at the site.
Keep in mind that it's not enough to just join and have your name on the membership list. You have to focus on building relationships with the other members of the community. This is a new concept to some; others of you will realize quickly that you can develop real relationships with people you're meeting in cyber space.
So be active in the community. Post topics on threads that deal with your area of expertise. Respond to others' postings on other threads if the subject is at all relevant to your area of expertise. Posting on relevant bulletin boards is a great way to gain visibility, which can lead to credibility and eventually new business. And the more you're seen, interacted with and talked about, the more visibility you'll gain on the site. One note of caution: Don't join too many online networking communities, or you won't be able to be involved effectively enough to build relationships.
Here's another idea: If you're already in a live networking group and then join an online networking group, consider creating a regional or national club or a sub-community for the members of your offline group. This will just expand the amount of networking you can do within your own organization!
2. Start a blog or write a regular column for a website or e-newsletter. Online networking works best when you get plenty of "hits." If you can start a blog (basically an online diary) on one of the larger blogger sites or online communities, you'll create more buzz for yourself. As people read your content and become familiar with you, they'll feel like they know you and that's integral to the networking process. Becoming an expert in an area and writing regularly about it can go a long way toward building your online networking opportunities.
3. Develop an e-mail newsletter for your own company. Create an e-mail database of clients, customers and friends, and send them regular content that drives them to your own website. Be sure that your newsletters contain content that has a broad spectrum of interest about your business. You might want to encourage clients and customers to contribute to your content. In doing this, you'll build stronger relationships with them, which in turn will help you increase the amount of referrals you'll receive.
4. Never forget that online networking is still about developing trust. With online networking, the bottom line is still the same as with live networking. In order to drive business to your company by word of mouth, you must focus on developing real, personal relationships with people. Once you've established that foundation of trust, you'll feel comfortable referring people--and so will your network. The same hold's true with online networks, although it may take a bit longer to develop that trust over the internet.
Although there really are no short cuts, technology has made it somewhat more convenient to connect with many more people. That being said, I cannot stress enough that those connections aren't terribly valuable if there isn't trust, respect and friendship being established. One place that teaches that online is www.NetworkingCommunity.com. This website is part of the CoachVille.com community but is open to coaches and non-coaches alike. At NetworkingCommunity.com, they teach people about social capital and networking, and they do it in an online community setting.
5. Understand that online networking has its own cultural norms. It's much easier to get "flamed" online than in face-to-face networking. Let me explain. If you were to ask a total stranger to do business with you in a face-to-face setting, it's pretty difficult for the stranger, because of cultural norms, to respond in an aggressive manner. Mind you, they're still not likely to feel comfortable with your request, but they probably won't act visibly upset.
None of those cultural pretenses exist online, however, and people tend to be much more blunt when responding online than in a face-to-face meeting. With online networking, I think that people feel it's easier to be more direct. The problem is that the response is also more direct and may come across as aggressive or antagonistic. So be careful whom you approach--build a relationship before you ask for someone's business.
Online networking gives you breadth in your networking efforts. It allows you to broaden your reach to anywhere in the world. Just don't forget that trust and relationship building are still as important as ever.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.