In my book, The World’s Best Known Marketing Secret, which was written in the mid-90’s, I talked about 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.   Today, I would definitely add a network to this list that has grown substantially in the last few years – namely “online networks.” 

 

Online networking is a growing phenomenon.  As a matter of fact, I was recently asked a question about developing an online referral-generating protocol.  There are several ways to develop your word-of-mouth marketing online, but it is important to understand that the foundation of making online networking work for you is still the same—developing relationships with trusted business associates.

 

How, then, does one go about integrating the technology available to him or her and still be developing networking skills, relationships and trust in an online environment, thereby growing a business through word-of-mouth marketing?  There are several ways:

 

1. Join one or more online networking communities.  I recommend Ecademy (www.ecademy.com).  After joining, participate in the “community” in whatever way you can to best grow a presence at the site.  Posting on relevant bulletin boards is a great way to gain visibility, which can lead to credibility and eventually business. 

 

If you are in a live networking group and then join an online networking group like Ecademy, consider creating a regional or national club or sub-community for the members of your group.  This will just expand the amount of networking you can do within your own organization!

 

Keep in mind that it’s not enough to just join and have your name on the membership list.  You must focus on building relationships with the other members of the community.  This is a new concept to some; others realize quickly that you can develop a relationship with people you are meeting in cyber space.

 

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.  The more you are seen, interacted with and talked about, the more visibility on the site you will gain.  One note of caution:  don’t join too many of these, or you won’t be able to be involved effectively enough to build relationships.

 

2. Start a blog or write a regular column for a website or eNewsletter.  Online networking works best when you get plenty of “hits”…if you can start your blog (basically an online diary) on one of the larger blogger sites or online communities, you will create more buzz for yourself.  As people read your content and become familiar with you, they feel like they know you better and that is 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 eZine for your own company.  Create an email database of your clients, customers and friends and send them regular content that drives them to your own website.  Be sure that your eZine contains content that has a broad spectrum of interest about your business.  You might want to consider working with a professional eZine developer (yes, I can give you a referral for this!).  Encourage clients and customers to contribute to your content.  In doing this, you will build stronger relationships with them, too, which will, in turn, help to increase the amount of referrals you will receive.

 

4. Remember that online networking is still about developing trust.  The bottom line when talking about online networking is still the same as with live networking.  In order to drive business to your company by word of mouth, you have to focus on developing relationships with people.  In my referral organization, BNI, it’s about building a relationship with people in a face-to-face environment that builds trust. That is where a BNI member is coming from when he or she works with another BNI member in their group.  From that trust, you feel comfortable referring people.  Effectively, that is the same with online networks.  However, 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 are not terribly valuable if there isn’t trust, respect and friendship being established. 

 

5. Online networking has its own cultural norms. It is much easier to get “flamed” online than in face-to-face networking.  When someone asks a total stranger to do business with them in a face-to-face setting it is difficult for the stranger, because of various cultural norms, to respond in an aggressive manner.  Mind you, they are still not likely to feel good about the request, but, they don't act visibly upset.

 

None of those cultural pretenses exist online and people tend to overreact (at least it feels like an overreaction), because they are much less likely to respond as bluntly in a face-to-face meeting.  I believe that with online networking it feels easier to be more direct.  The problem is that the response is also more direct. 

 

So, what's the answer?  I think it is fundamentally the same as with any other network you are developing.  Build a relationship before you ask for business.  The foundation of trust (as described in #4 above)  MUST be there for online networking to be truly successful.  Online networking give 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.