T.T. (Mitch) Mitchell knows all about networking. He understands the value of making friends in the business community and creating of web of connections who act as resources for one another and (hopefully) throw business toward one another, too.
He's done the chamber of commerce thing. Now he is looking for a bigger pool in which to fish. As a management and diversity training consultant in Syracuse, N.Y. he needs to cast a regional net, and he has found a way to do that, through the World Wide Web.
"I have met people in Rochester and Albany and Buffalo. Now as I put together seminars and workshops, they are helping me as I look for contacts to attend those public seminars. That is something I would not have had without having met those people online," he said.
Sell Locally, Think Globally
Online networking is growing in popularity, especially among small businesses who may not have any other easy resource to expand their connections beyond their local markets. A number of online networking sites have arisen with the express idea of helping to connect people with similar interests, ideas and business needs.
Take for instance Ryze, a hotbed of online networking. Members can post their profiles, bios and photos. The site is divided into special-interest "tribes" that cover "almost every possible subject in the universe," said Eileen Parzek, owner of SoHo IT Goes! marketing design and an expert in online networking.
"You can create this long list of interests, and if somebody else has that same interest they can send you a message on your guest book," she explained. From there people get to talking and, in many instances, new business relationships arise.
A number of other sites offer the same sorts of opportunities for relationship building, including ItsNotWhatYouKnow, LinkedIn and Ecademy.
Beyond these sites, which exist for the sole purpose of networking, one can always find networking opportunities in various special-interest locations on the Web, such as mailing lists (a.k.a. listservs) and even on SmallBusinessComputing.com's discussion forums.
In a typical mailing list, subscribers will contribute comments and interact, either with or without a moderator. Such lists offer an opportunity to create an ad hoc e-mail-based community of individuals with similar interests.
A discussion forum is usually Web based, as opposed to e-mail based. "This format is effective because it is usually organized by topics, and you can read whatever anyone before you had written," explained Parzek. You can read what others have written, search out particular subjects and launch new discussion threads.
How to find an appropriate forum? Start at Google, the fountain of all wisdom. Search relevant terms, adding keywords such as 'forum' or 'discussion group.' Parzek also recommends such sites as Topica and Liszt that categorize the millions of mailing lists.
You will probably find several groups of interest, and will need to evaluate the different groups to determine which will be most useful. It's important for example to look at the culture of a group. Some are dominated by people who like to argue. Some are friendly to the point of being little more than social gathering. Some offer genuinely helpful information and networking opportunities.
Listen and Learn
Having narrowed down the field, it's time to step back and wait.
"There are people who join and immediately start offering their thoughts and ideas without finding out what the particular mood and culture of a group might be," said Mitchell. It's better to wait a bit and let it all sink in before tossing in your two cents.
Likewise, there are certain rules of etiquette to be observed.
"You cannot self-promote blatantly without ever having been helpful to anyone else," said Parzek. "You want to give. In order to have people willing to help when you have a problem, you need to be perceived as helpful well in advance of that."
Finally, it is worth keeping in mind that while Internet-based networking can be a valuable tool for generating new leads and business connections, it can also be a giant waste of time. Like all things Internet, it is easy to get sucked in, and the savvy entrepreneur will keep close tabs on the time and effort he or she spends on cultivating new cyber-pals.
"It is a time sink, and most people who jump in for the first time just drown," said Parzek. "You have to have discipline."
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