Small Business Owners: Begin Networking Online Today

A handshake is no longer the only way to seal a deal. Country clubs and coffee shops still provide the chance, albeit in limited numbers compared to their …

A handshake is no longer the only way to seal a deal. Country clubs and coffee shops still provide the chance, albeit in limited numbers compared to their online counterpart—social networking websites.

LinkedIn and Ryze have dominated the online networking scene for business professionals. LinkedIn is all about connecting to current and former colleagues then using their connections to form a sizeable network. The larger the network the more potential there is for receiving a job offer, recruiting a new client or finding a highly recommended service provider. Ryze was started in 2001 in part to give people the opportunity to stay in contact after attending face-to-face social networking events in San Francisco. The site now offers hundreds of networks for users to connect and share advice, network and form quality relationships. With network names ranging from Testosterone-Free-Marketing to China Business Forum, and topics anywhere between, it’s likely that there is an interest for nearly everyone. If not, then users can start a network at any time, even a private network for colleagues only.

Amber Riviere, a dedicated social networker and creator of Ryze’s My Advisory Board network, attributes 80 percent of her incoming clients for her web design business, Brown Bug, LLC, to her online networking efforts, mostly Ryze. “I spend about 30 minutes to an hour a day maintaining my own online networks (posting new topics and articles, replying to articles posted to my networks by others, welcoming new members, and replying to e-mails that come from network members).”

“The most important thing for developing lasting connections online is to always be genuine. You’ll attract people who are best suited to your personality, which creates deeper connections,” Riviere said.

It wouldn’t be prudent to say that online networking has taken the place of face-to-face contact. What it has done is help people turn casual connections into solid relationships, enabling contacts to become business allies, customers or an ideal new hire for a position that is difficult to fill.

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And these sites are not meant for teens and collegiates as other popular social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. The pages are straightforward and free of flash animated advertisements, ideal for most levels of Internet users. Meeting up with old friends and chatting about projects with current colleagues can happen in a few minutes after creating a profile. “It would be easy to spend two to three hours per day following multiple networks. I’ve done that at certain points, but I don’t really have that kind of time now, so I usually commit to about an hour a day,” Riviere said.

Online social networks are not for the shortsighted, she said. “Social networking is not something that is easy….It takes time and commitment. Although I’ve had overnight successes with some of my efforts, a far greater percentage of my success comes from relationships that have been built over time.”

The three- to five-hour time commitment per week can seem massive in order to become a successful online networker. Compare this to the 45 minutes it takes to travel to and from a meeting at the local coffee shop that renders 10 minutes of meaningful conversation. The ease of online networking gives the ability to the average businessperson to touch hundreds of potential clients in the same amount of time it takes to sip a $4 cup of coffee and chat with one person. Even using a 15-minute break to log into a social networking site to update colleagues about what projects are nearing completion and then searching for a talented ad designer for the next project is quicker than a walk to the coffee shop, and better for a career.

Like nearly all ventures, there is a dark side to online interactions. Social networking sites are known for problems with phishing. Many users feel safe because they registered and the network seems secure, but anyone can join and view the personal information that is posted let alone phish for passwords and credit card numbers. This is done through setting up bogus websites; phishers will send an e-mail that looks, for example, like it is coming from LinkedIn. When users click on it, they go to a site that looks like LinkedIn, but when they input their login information, the phishers get the info and can access the real account. Being cautious is essential in all online interactions. Some choose to use aliases or special passwords and avoid talk of children.

So, where to start? With so many networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Hi5, Ryze, LinkedIn, Plaxo and lots more) it’s pivotal to first define a clear purpose. Social sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter are good for keeping in contact with friends and finding out about community events while Ryze, LinkedIn and Plaxo are great sites for finding long-lost colleagues and building a client base. Read the about and comment sections carefully and pay close attention to the tutorials. These provide valuable information regarding the sites’ purposes, functions and features.

When searching for potential contacts and clients, develop a strategy that is first based on connections (hometown, college, former employers, etc.) and then to build contacts through their connections. It’s boggling to watch these connections grow and the network potential become thousands within days.

One of the more challenging aspects of networking is getting quick, positive responses to requests. Some businesses that sell tangible products offer entry into raffles for gift certificates to those who contribute opinions or participate in feedback sessions. Others in information fields share knowledge and tips to help establish long-term relationships based on trust.

Whatever the strategy, be willing to keep it going and try adding strategies such as posting comments on blogs. Even when it feels no one is paying attention, web sites hold searchable content for months or even years that can help drive people to profiles on business networking sites in the near future.

Need a little more inspiration? According to Riviere, “The absolute greatest result of social networking has been the long-term friendships and business alliances that have developed over time. On top of that, it’s likely that one of my businesses would have never come into existence had it not been for those relationships.”


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