As modern life gets busier and work/life balance becomes more of an issue for everyone, the Internet has really come into its own. We shop online, we chat online – and, if you’re a business owner, there's even the opportunity to network online.
In terms of flexibility, online networking has traditional networking well and truly beat. No longer are business owners forced to take time out from their businesses to fend of the advances of a dozen, business-card-wielding serial networkers at some military-style event. Now we can just log on to one of the many discussion forums dedicated to entrepreneur ship and be winning friends and influencing people in the click of a mouse.
In this respect, online networking is truly good news. With the freedom offered by the Internet, however, comes a whole new set of rules, the flouting of which can end up doing your business more harm than good. Here are just a few of them:
1. Don't be too blatant
Online networking is far subtler than its offline counterpart. It's just not the done thing to blaze into a business forum trailing promises of instant riches and dropping your URL like a scud missile. The trick is to try and integrate yourself into the community, offering advice where it's required and joining in the discussion. By positioning yourself as an expert in your field you'll gain more business in the long-term than blatant self promotion. And speaking of blatant self-promotion…
2. Don't spam
In terms of Internet discussion boards, spamming is defined as posting the same message on more than one board. Just as annoying as the type of spam which clutters your email inbox every day, this type of behaviour is more likely to loose you business than gain it. Resit!
3. You only get back what you give
There are some business owners who shudder at the very thought of giving their advice or help for free. These are the business owners who aren't making much of a success of online networking. The rule is simple: what you get out of it is roughly proportional to what you put in. Show yourself willing to offer your expertise to those who need it, and you'll be repaid in terms of referrals and more business from the people who see your posts.
4. Don’t say anything you wouldn't be happy to say in front of your clients
Online networking differs from “normal" discussion board use in that it's rarely anonymous. If you want to make the most of the experience, you'll need to tell people who you are, and use your URL in your signature. What that means, though, is that anything you say on the discussion board can be traced back to you – and could be seen by your clients. Stick to the rule of never saying on a discussion board what you wouldn't say in the boardroom and this shouldn't be a problem.
5. Don't be rude
This one should really go without saying, but an unfortunate side-effect of Internet discussion boards is that they often make people feel braver than they really are. Protected by the relative anonymity of a screen name, some people will take the opportunity to show their true colours – even when those colours are less than flattering. Remember rule number 4, though: on this kind of forum, you're never anonymous. If your business is identified, then you are too. More importantly, your behaviour will be seen as a reflection on your business. When you come across people whose opinions and pronouncements anger you, then, take a deep breath and step away from the keyboard before you end up saying something you'll regret.
6. Use your signature
Although blatant promotion is a big no-no in the world of online business networking, you still need to promote your business somehow. The place to do that is in your signature file, with a subtle but informative description of your business, and link to your website.
Amber McNaught is an owner of Business Buzz , an online business networking group based in Scotland. She is also a professional writer, offering affordable copywriting and SEO articles through her own business, Hot Igloo Productions Ltd.