handshake_bus_networkingA few weeks ago, I got a phone call from the San Francisco Bay area about a job. The caller found my name and profile on an online networking website I had joined the day before. Then, he Googled me and found my personal website and contact information. “Is this how you usually look for contractors?” I asked. “Of course,” he answered, “online networking is the fastest way to find qualified people.”

Now, I’ve never been much of a ‘networker’. That’s why this online thing appealed to me. I could do it without having to attend an actual event. But getting a phone call from a stranger, miles away, was something I never expected when I signed up on a whim.

It led me to wonder if there was more to online business networking than I’d previously thought. So, I decided to do a little research. Here’s what I found.

Online networks explained

The Internet facilitates all kinds of networking. Those of us who spend even a little time online are familiar with most of the tools: discussion groups and forums, chat and instant messenger, blogs and even email.

But over the last few years, another type of organized exchange has been gaining popularity online. These are private, virtual communities where mutually beneficial connections between individuals are made with tacit trust.

And in the case of business networking, these communities are built on the proven notion that warm leads generate more business, and so are designed to curtail ‘cold-calling’ by encouraging members to tap into business prospects in their network instead. It’s really not unlike in-person networking, except you can do it in your pajamas.

How online networks work

Once you start looking, you’ll find a wide variety of business networks on the Web. Many simply require you to sign up and they’ll link you automatically with other members in your geographical area, or industry. You can ‘screen’ individuals through their profile, posted on the site, and privacy is assured by the restriction of contact information each member provides. Membership is usually free or for a small fee, and value-added services are sometimes offered, like blog publishing, contact management systems, calendar organizers, discounts on business services, and communities broken down by topic, industry or region.

Though many of these sites are geared to getting to know complete strangers, one of the most interesting models is based on the theory that everyone is connected to everyone else through a chain of acquaintances no more than five intermediaries long (see LinkedIn, Zero Degrees, OpenBC and Powermingle, below). This type of online network attempts to utilize the ‘six degrees’ chain to allow individuals to tap into each other’s trusted, private networks to build and grow their businesses.

Here’s how it works. In the case of LinkedIn, for example, simply sign up, write your profile and upload your current email contact list to see who’s already a member. Invite contacts you wish to network with, and encourage them to invite their associates. Then, watch your inner circle of business prospects grow as introductions are made by friends and associates, or as members contact each other directly.

For instance, I was invited to become a member of LinkedIn by a friend and business associate. I signed up, and linked to seventeen other members I knew personally. Then, I could see their personal networks — 200 connections. And my resulting entire network, only three degrees away? 30,000+ individuals. It’s that kind of range, diversity and potential that keeps me interested.

And, there’s something else. The global nature of the Internet means it’s easy to link with people all over the world. When I asked one of my connections what he liked about the service, he quipped, “I like that I can be three degrees away from Bill Gates.” Bill Gates? Only four degrees away!

Admittedly, these virtual communities aren’t yet substituting for face-to-face contact. My connections tell me they still put emphasis on in-person networking, as results are fewer and farther between in a remote, online environment.

And, since membership is often free, people tend to join out of curiousity — to see who knows who in their industry — with little intention of using the tools to increase their business prospects.

Many more users claim, once they’ve signed up, they use the service itself little, instead preferring to have their direct contacts on chat or instant messenger.

And, it may be difficult to figure out how to exploit these services to your advantage. For example, LinkedIn encourages you only to accept invitations from people you know well. If this is the case, then how is anyone expected to grow their network to include new contacts?

Negatives aside, if you’re a small business person who often works in isolation, they’re definitely worth testing as tool to grow your business.

Joining an online business network can help you:

1. Increase your exposure in your community and industry.
2. Manage and grow your business contacts to reinforce your value in the marketplace. Easily take contact information with you from contract to contract or employer to employer.
3. Find ‘screened’ employees or contractors and check references.
4. Reach qualified partners whose competence can be verified by trusted individuals.
5. Conduct market research. Online networks make it easy to tap into an industry’s knowledge-base.

Choosing a network and making the most of it

With so many business networking groups on the Web, you won’t have any trouble finding one that suits you. Here’s a list I compiled after doing just a little research:

* LinkedIn www.linkedin.com

* ReferNet www.refernet.net

* Ryze www.ryze.com

* Ecademy www.ecademy.com

* Jigsaw www.jigsaw.com

* Xing www.xing.com

* Media Bistro www.mediabistro.com

* Networking for Professionals www.networkingforprofessionals.com

* Power Mingle www.powermingle.com

* Ziggs www.ziggs.com

Once you’ve chosen a network to join, don’t take it lightly. It may be easy to post your profile on the Internet and start making contacts, but bad choices you make online can come back to haunt you. Here are a few tips to ensure you mitigate risk and get the most out of your networking.

* Don’t spread yourself thin. Choose one or two networks to join and use well. If you join too many, you won’t have time to give any the attention they deserve.

* Create a solid profile. Remember, prospects will be judging you and your business based on your profile information. Every opportunity to write about yourself online is an opportunity to reinforce your brand. So, before you post anything, think about your target and how you can position yourself as an expert. And, make sure your writing is clear and concise.

* Cross promote. Create an email signature that includes your pertinent contact information and website address.

* Remember these networks are built on trust, and any connections made through you will reflect on you and your business. Go for quality over quantity. Only choose to associate with people you would network with in-person, and would be happy to refer others to.

Finally, if you don’t see success right away, give it a chance. Online business networking is just getting started. In fact, if online dating is any indication of the success that can be had building relationships online, it’s future looks very bright.

Who’d have predicted that one day, using the Internet, you could create and develop business relationships in your slippers? Well, maybe Mr. Gates. Now if I could just wangle an introduction…

Reprint. Originally published in Webnames.ca’s The Server Room and Retail BC Magazine