Online social networking is the newest weapon to get more customers. The Internet research company Compete found that two out of every three people using the Web visited a social networking site. These websites have had a 109 percent growth since 2004 and seem to show no signs of stopping, Compete found.
“Online networking used to be seen as geeky,” says David Teten, CEO of Nitron Advisors, a New York consultancy, and author of The Virtual Handshake: Opening Doors and Closing Deals Online. “Now people realize it’s a more efficient way to meet someone quickly.”
While popular teenage/young adult sites like Friendster or MySpace may not garner more sales for your business, there are plenty of social networking websites geared towards the entrepreneur, such as LinkedIn, Ryze and Spoke. Today the hard part isn’t finding a service, but finding the right service.
A networking service for every niche
Experts say the first step is to find a service representing your current or desired business niche. These should be people who will trade information.
“Look at the quality of people. Are they in similar industries? The whole goal is to make connections, so are they people you can see in your circle of influence and what do you bring to the party, too?” says Andrea Nierenberg, president of The Nierenberg Group, a New York consulting firm, and author of Nonstop Networking: How To Improve Your Life, Luck and Career. “What’s in it for me and what can I give?”
Teten recommends using the “gated community” concept: go after the networks with companies you aspire to become. Surrounding yourself in better company gives access to better connections and better resources. By associating yourself with a network frequented by other companies or individuals at your current level of growth or development, “you could be distracted by job seekers and other individuals,” he says.
Finally, online networking will not replace phone calls, conferences and face-to-face meetings. “These things are wonderful and we should use technology to our advantage, but look at it for what it is: a tool,” Nierenberg says. “You may start online, but you have to take it to the next step.”
A few networks for business
LinkedIn creates an individual profile based on your professional history and, via e-mail, allows you to invite other individuals to be part of your social circle. They, in turn, connect you to their colleagues.
Among the paid accounts, the basic Business costs $19.95/month and offers 15 introduction opportunities to other individuals, Business Pro costs $50/month and offers 25 introduction requests, and Pro costs $200/month and offers 40 introduction requests.
The primary focus of Ryze is linking individual people, not unlike LinkedIn, but it does so by determining common interests. Members receive a free home page as well as access to topical forums called Networks. The Networks allow users to discuss ideas relevant to their specific businesses as well as recruit other people. It also tells you which of the more than 250,000 members are located nearby.
The basic service is free, but limits searching capabilities. The paid memberships vary widely, but can be had for around $9.95 per month.
If LinkedIn is the connection to individuals, Spoke is the connection to companies. Marketed as the largest online business-to-business prospect database, Spoke claims to have more than 30 million contributors and 900,000 companies.
Spoke specializes in three areas: direct marketing, sales and recruiting. Individual membership costs $50/month or $500/year. It offers a free five-day trial.