Networking used to consist of going to functions, shaking hands and swapping business cards. Today, we do much more of our networking online, and not everyone really knows how to go about this.

Following are seven suggestions for ways to build your network, and by association your potential for business, online:

1. Join an online community

Today are many online communities that you can actively be involved in. Many offer a very high degree of interaction with forums, podcasts, training, offline events etc. Don't just go to the sites, become an active part of the community. Find a network to suit you, sign up and be involved.

2. Write comments, give your opinion, be vocal

Take the time to comment on other people's blog posts, articles and in forums wherever possible. This will let people know that you not only exist but also what kind of person you are based on your comments, feedback and involvement.

3. Recommend the products and services of other businesses

I promote the concept that the best way to get more referrals is to give more referrals. The more you promote other people's businesses, the more you attract attention and get referrals yourself. Talk about other businesses in your blog posts, social media and really at any opportunity you have. You will be surprised who notices and how this leads to more opportunities for you.

4. Introduce yourself in a smart way

It isn't that hard to track down someone's email address and by all means, why not introduce yourself by shooting them an email? But think about your email before you send it. Suggest ways that you can work together that will be of benefit to both of you, as opposed to just trying to sell them something.

5. Develop a strategy on each of the social media options

There is no doubt that social media is a tad confusing. We need to think about each of the main options available, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and You Tube, and develop a strategy or opportunity for each of them. For example you might use Twitter to promote sales or special offers, Facebook as way for customers to talk about your products and share their experiences, LinkedIn for building credibility of your key people and You Tube as your "infomercial" space.

6. Link with other businesses

Linking is still a very important way to build traffic to a website, but it is also a way to build relationships. By offering to link between your business and another, you are in many ways endorsing each other and that helps to strengthen your relationship. As a result, everyone wins.

7. Invite people to connect online in an offline way

Recently I met a lady at a conference whom I had communicated with and even done business with, totally online, for the past five years. It was great to meet her face to face and it has certainly strengthened our relationship. Based on this experience I am always looking for opportunities to meet face to face with my online contacts.

There are many opportunities to network online, but like all business development it is much more effective if we do it planned and strategic way.

Published on: Oct 6, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.