For the small business owner, exchanging business cards and napkins with phone numbers scribbled on them has always played a vital role in obtaining new clients and securing the future of a company. However, the overnight boom of social media and the growing pressure to establish a web presence have many small business owners scrambling to find an effective online networking strategy.
We recently spoke with networking strategist Liz Lynch, who is the founder of the Center for Networking Excellence and author of Smart Networking: Attract a Following in Person and Online, about the importance of creating an online networking strategy, utilizing free social media, and the common online pitfalls that every small business owner should avoid.
ISBB: What would you say to a small business owner that is apprehensive about venturing into online networking?
Lynch: It’s normal to be apprehensive because there are a lot of potential pitfalls with online networking. But I have to say that it’s a must for small business owners.
First, you need to be in the game. Imagine a big block party taking place down the street and everyone is there, including your competitors, but you’re not. If you’re not part of the conversation, you’re going to be forgotten.
Second, unlike large companies, you probably don’t have a huge advertising budget for TV commercials or direct mail. A lot of online networking is free, so why wouldn’t you take advantage of the opportunity to spread the word about your business?
Third, you want to be able to interact with your customers, because by doing so, you build greater loyalty and generate more word of mouth. Having a Facebook fan page or a Twitter account opens the door to that kind of interaction.
Where do individuals tend go wrong with their online networking strategy?
A networking strategy that is basically “set it and forget it” doesn’t work, either online or offline. Putting up a LinkedIn profile, for example, is good, but if that’s all you do, that’s no more effective in getting leads and referrals than simply paying your membership dues to a professional association and never going to any meetings. Getting connected is the start, but it’s the conversations you have that really drive the results. You have to talk to people!
When developing an online networking strategy, what should a small business owner do first?
Your first priority in your networking plan is to build your credibility. If you start connecting with people who don’t know you, either at networking events, contacting them by phone or email, or inviting them to link online, they’re going to want to check you out, and you want to have a good story to tell. You should definitely have a LinkedIn profile so potential contacts can see your background and experience. Be sure to include a professional photo so people can see you’re a real person.
Then I would focus on a blog. A blog is like having your own online column where you write articles and comment on stories related to your expertise. This enables people to see the depth of what you know and how you approach it, more than a traditional website really can. Two other key advantages about a blog are that others can easily share your content with their network, expanding the universe of people who know you, and that your articles can be found through search engines.
With social networking, is it more beneficial to go for the quality or quantity of connections?
If I had to choose between 1000 people who knew my name and nothing else and 10 people who knew me really well and were willing to go the extra mile for me, I would choose the latter in a heartbeat. However, with social media, you really can have quantity and quality. The key is engagement. That’s how you get to know people and how they get to know you. In 10 minutes a day, for instance, you can have quick interactions with a dozen different connections – wish them a happy birthday, say congratulations, “like” one of their links or comments, retweet one of their updates. Every tiny thread of interaction eventually builds up into a strong bond, and that would be much harder to do without social networking.
What real-world practices should a small business owner incorporate into their online networking strategy?
So many people think that online networking is different from face-to-face, and it really isn’t. Everything you would do to build a relationship in the real world, you would want to bring to forming online relationships. For example, when you meet someone in person, you want to introduce yourself properly by walking up to them, saying your name, extending your hand, and engaging them in conversation. You wouldn’t just thrust your business card at them and walk away. Yet I see that type of behavior so often in online networking where people are just sending Facebook and LinkedIn invitations without including a personal message.
There’s something about online networking that makes some people feel bolder, lazier, more casual. That’s fine with your friends, but when you’re networking for business, a good rule of thumb is that if it works in the real world with your business contacts, it’s probably OK online.
For more information about networking strategist Liz Lynch, her book, and upcoming speaking events, visit her website.