How to Make Online Networking Work for You
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
Who's best suited for online networking? On the one hand, the answer is obvious: Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can access the growing number of social networking sites on the web.
The less obvious answer, however, is based on you and your interactive and time management preferences. Do you enjoy spending time on your computer? Some personality types avoid computer-based interactions as much as possible, while others seem drawn to their monitors, tablets and phones like moths to light bulbs. There's no right or wrong about it, just degrees of preference. The more you like browsing the internet, communicating via email and otherwise working digitally, the more likely you are to find online networking a good fit.
If online living isn't your thing, don't despair. Remember, web-based networking is a means to an end. A little time online can be leveraged to great effect when you use that time for connecting briefly with new contacts you'd like to meet in person or for following up after face-to-face encounters.
Consider in advance how much of your time -- as in how many hours per day or week you're truly willing to devote to online networking, as well as how you prefer to use that time (i.e., reviewing discussions in online forums, keeping your profiles updated, posting to your blog, reading and responding to comments, reading other people's blogs, tweeting and so on).
No matter how many sites you're active on, be very clear with yourself -- and with others -- about your motives and goals. Stay positive, informative and value oriented.
Learn the difference between interactions that move you and your online community members toward productive relationship building and those that simply suck time and energy. For example, if someone asks a question that you can answer, that's an opportunity to be helpful while displaying your knowledge. Be careful, though, when comments veer into opinion because you can easily make an offhand remark that goes viral -- and that you'll regret within seconds. There's no pulling something back once it's in cyberspace, and the audience for your unintended remark can grow exponentially.
Above all, as with any kind of business networking, your objective is to develop social capital. Here's a question you'll have to confront in the online world: Will your investment of time, energy and caring on behalf of other networkers be reciprocated in ways that you find meaningful? Only you can define what meaningful means to you, and only you can decide whether your investment is productive.
Other ways to communicate online
Blogging and publishing an online newsletter can complement your online networking. Both can also be time-consuming, as the material must be updated regularly to remain current -- both in content and in the minds of your audience. So proceed carefully and deliberately if you choose to launch either or both of these communication tools.
A blog offers your audience a place to get to know you better, but it works as intended only if your target audience spends the time to read it. The best blogs are written with their readers (as opposed to their authors) in mind and fill a specific need. For example, blogging about your thoughts on foreign policy works only if you happen to be involved somehow in foreign affairs and can write authoritatively for an interested audience. Blogging about what you had for lunch today will probably interest people only if you're a restaurant critic or at least writing for an audience of ardent foodies.
Books and websites on blogging abound, so educate yourself before diving in. But, use caution: A blog is so easy to start today that you could fall into the "ready, fire, aim" trap and get sidetracked into an activity that ends up being a tangent rather than a core strategy of your online networking.
Much of what we just said about blogging applies equally to online newsletters: Know your audience and what it wants. Write for your readers and not for yourself. Know why you're publishing it, too. Are you hoping to sell your products or services, build your brand, keep people coming back to your website, alert readers to the latest developments in your company or fill an information gap? Online newsletters can help you engage with your target audience and generate support and interest -- when they're well-conceived and well executed.
Decide on your newsletter's frequency in advance. If you're not sure about certain elements of it, start with it monthly so you can learn as you go without inflating expectations. Increasing the frequency to satisfy audience demand is much better than having to decrease frequency because of low interest or other problems.
Publishing an enewsletter requires decent writing skills, the willingness and ability to learn the ropes (i.e., software, design and formatting, collecting and managing email addresses) and a long-term commitment to getting out a quality issue on time, every time.
If done right, with the proper respect and consistency, social media can be a legitimate tool in branding and raising the awareness people have of you in the business community.