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Everything You Need to Know About Online Business Networking

Written by Eileen Parzek, © 2003

We all know (and some of us dread) the idea of business networking. It conjures up an image of stuffing ourselves into a suit or pantyhose, going to events, wearing a sticker with our name scrawled on it, approaching and introducing ourselves to strangers, and trying to remember to keep our cold drinks in the hand we don't shake with.

Fun, isn't it?

When I tell people offline that I do much of my business networking online, they usually look puzzled. As I explain to the uninitiated, networking online is the same as networking offline, in many ways. You want to make contacts, build relationships, generate leads and meet prospects, and spread the word about your business. Relationship building and networking takes time offline, and it is no different online. So, let's get started!

Types of business networking communities

There are two common technologies used for online business networking - mailing lists (a.k.a. listservs) and discussion forums.

A mailing list is simply a group of email addresses subscribed to a single list, where sending an email to the list address distributes the email to all the subscribers. Mailing lists have been around as long as email, and there is a variety of formats: moderated or un-moderated, announcement or discussion. An announcement list is one where the list owner can send out but no one can reply, so it is used for sending things like newsletters, not business networking. A discussion list allows all subscribers to contribute, and interact, and it can be moderated, with someone determining what an acceptable posting to the list is. Sometimes moderated lists are set up so someone has to approve each and every posting - and sometimes the moderator simply stays quiet until someone needs a stern warning or help. An un-moderated list has no one in charge and can rapidly turn into mayhem, since everyone is under the cloak of anonymity and there is little repercussion for misbehavior. For the most part, business networking mailing lists are moderated by one or more individuals.

Discussion forums operate differently because they are usually web based. You go to a web site, create a profile for yourself by registering to join, and start browsing the topics. This format is effective because it is usually organized by topics, and you can read whatever anyone before you had written. The discussions are "threaded," which means that the original post and all the replies that follow are linked to one another, and indented so you can see the order of who responded to who, when. Forums are often searchable so if you need to find something out, you can search by those words and see if anyone has discussed it previously and contact them. Other benefits of discussion forums are that your profile can tell interested parties about you and your business, and you can set it up to email you if anyone replies to a topic you post.

Finding a place to network

Depending on how you wish to network, you can find networks to join in a number of ways. The most effective would be to ask people you know on or off the web if they recommend any good networks. For example, if you're a web designer in Manhattan, your colleagues might tell you about the World Wide Web Artists Consortium mailing list - an industry related network that has been in existence for many years, based in NYC. If you know another business person who operates online, they might tell you to check out Ryze.

Get on and do some searches for keywords like "forum" or "discussion board" and include your industry or interests in the search. For example, if you are a freelance writer, you might search Google for "freelance business forum" or "writers mailing list." It really depends on what you want to accomplish, who you want to network with (colleagues? prospective clients?).

For mailing lists, there are sites like Topica.com and Liszt.com that categorize the millions of mailing lists, which you can search to find some potential places to network.

Just because you find a network doesn't mean you will necessarily want to join it. For discussion forums, look at participation. How much traffic does the site seem to get? And how many, and how recent, were the posts? Don't waste your time joining if it doesn't seem like anyone ever comes there. You cannot gauge the traffic on mailing lists as easily so you will have to subscribe and see what comes through before determining if it will benefit you.

Getting Started

You can join a mailing list either by filling out a form on a web site with your email address, or sending an email to a subscription address. You will usually get a confirmation that you need to reply to, in order to be subscribed. Then you should get a welcome message telling you the basics of using that particular mailing list - how to post to the list, how to unsubscribe, and who to contact if you have problems. After you have subscribed, you will start to get emails from the list.

Whether or not you are networking via a mailing list, you should always have a "sig" file for your email account. A sig, or signature, is simply a bit of information about your business and contact information that is automatically appended to the end of every email you send out. It is set up in the options or preferences of your email application. For networking, it is essential that you set up a 2-4 line sig for anyone who wants to contact you, know what you do or find your web site.

For discussion forums, you can usually read posts as a guest, but to contribute, you will have to register. Registering usually involves filling out a form and answering questions about your business, and providing contact information. Be cautious what you provide here - you may want to include your web site address and phone number, but don't post things like your street address. If there is a description or bio field, fill it out - this is how people learn about you and what you do.

How to participate

Before entering into a discussion, it is a good idea to observe for a while. Get a feel for the types of people who are participating, what the communication style is, and the personality of the group. It is no different from face to face networking - you wouldn't want to wear a suit to a surfer's convention, or show up loud and brash at a chamber of commerce meeting.

For discussion forums, look around to see if there is a link to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) and read it. It may provide essential information about what is acceptable behavior or discourse, and tips for interacting with the group. You might also find a link or address to speak with the moderator or list owner, either on the web site or in the welcome email. This is a good person to contact with any questions or concerns.

One way to begin is to scan for questions that other members ask, which you can answer. Make yourself useful, helpful and share what you know. This is a great way to establish yourself as an expert, and get your name (and that sig you created!) out in front of the group. Once you feel comfortable, and have established some rapport, add your own questions, comments and concerns to the list or forum, and continue to do so over time. You might also notice, after observing a while, that new members post a short intro about themselves and you may want to do something like that too.

One of the most critical things to know about networking online is that the sales and advertising aspect of it is very subtle. DO NOT go leaping into a forum or list promoting yourself or your business directly. This will not win you respect or positive attention because if everyone did that, the group would deteriorate completely (as many have). Let your knowledge and your willingness to help others be your billboard and over time, you will establish trust and understanding among the group members about what you do, and what you are looking for.

If you aren't well versed in netiquette, it is more important than ever that you brush up on the basic rules. For example, typing in caps means you are shouting - so make sure you don't do that! Trim the email or post you are replying to, so it only includes the essential bits of the previous writer's post, and your reply. Don't post or send anything to the whole list which was sent to you privately without the sender's permission. There are many simple "golden rule" behaviors you should become familiar with, before networking online, or else you run the risk of making a bad impression or worse, alienating potential contacts. Don't worry though - there are literally thousands of netiquette sites online that you can search for and review, to get the hang of it.

Make it easier

Networking online, by its very nature, takes some time. If you decide to pursue this avenue for building your business, you will find that it is easy to become overwhelmed with emails to read, or have difficulty finding time to browse the forums. There are some things you can do to make this simpler and easier to do on a regular basis.

If typing is not your thing, you will probably find it difficult to network online. In fact, hunting and pecking can make online communication downright frustrating. Invest in a fun, affordable, and effective typing instruction program like Mavis Beacon and you will eventually find it much easier to tap the potential of networking online.

Scan the discussion forum and identify which forums you want to participate in. Some networking groups have multiple subjects - i.e., on a business networking group there might be a subsection for entrepreneurs, for free agents and work at home moms (WAHMs). Don't try to take it all on - but make it a habit to be a regular, reading and responding to posts, where it is most relevant to your business.

If you are involved in a discussion forum, you will have a username and password. Chances are there will be an option to save this log-in information and this is a convenience as long as you don't share your computer with anyone else. Once you have logged in, bookmark the forum to your Favorites (if you use Internet Explorer) so that it is easy to access.

In the discussion forums, you may also have the option to set notifications so that when someone responds to your posts or replies, you are notified by email with a link to quickly jump to that particular post in the forum.

For mailing lists, set up filters or rules in your email application to save any incoming mail from a mailing list into a particular folder. This will keep you organized and make it easier to routinely scan the subjects and see if any particular discussions are interesting to you. Some mailing lists generate a LOT of email so be sure to do this early on. Mark the emails that you want to save with a flag or category, and routinely purge the rest so that you do not end up with bloated folders of emails you will never read, or have read already.

Schedule or make a commitment to visit the forums, or the folder you set up to filter the email regularly, at least every 2-3 days or once a week. This not only builds it into your routine, but it reflects to the group that you're responsible, reliable, and not a fly-by-night operation. Of course, if you join a group and it doesn't work for you - move on - don't waste your time when there are so many others to try. With some effort and commitment, you will eventually find that your online network of contacts, referral sources, and potential clients is larger and farther flung than anything you could build with face to face networking.

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Eileen Parzek is an award winning graphic and web designer providing digital and print graphic design and web design services. Always found at the intersection of information, creativity and technology, her business, Business Design Studio (www.businessdesignstudio.com) helps small businesses make a big impression.

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