The Business Face of Social Networking

You’ve got a Web site, a blog, and maybe even an RSS feed. Think you’re done with Web 2.0? Think again. Social networking sites—community-driven Web sites that aim to connect friends and colleagues into an interwoven fabric of a network—should be next up on your business agenda. The sites can help you find referrals, vet ideas, get advice and more—usually for free.  

When it comes to social networking for business, we’re not referring to MySpace, FaceBook and other online popularity contests where teens and 20-somethings (plus 30-somethings who wish they were still 20-somethings) post embellished or embarrassing tidbits about themselves in the name of “connecting” with friends and strangers. (Though it doesn’t hurt to have a presence there, if that demographic is your target market).

Instead, there’s a universe of sites built by business people for business people, with the goal of establishing a community where business owners can connect with one another, get questions answered, get referrals for employees and foster new business relationships.

If you already have a presence on the Internet, why do you need branch out even more? “Having a Web site for your company is definitely helpful, but truth be told, no one thing alone will bring you and your company enough business,” said Krista Canfield, PR Manager for LinkedIn, the 800-pound gorilla of business social networking sites. “It’s best to take a multi-pronged approach in order to ensure that your business is getting as much exposure as possible.”

And while a Web site tends to be a passive business-development vehicle, letting you capture contacts that come to you, social networking sites let you be proactive in reaching out. “Social networking sites let you use your existing network of customers, partners and suppliers to develop new partnerships,” said Robin Carey, CEO of MyVenturePad, a business-focused social networking startup. She also noted that those networks are a great way to glean advice on almost any subject related to running a business. “You would be surprised how much information you can get for nothing.”

LinkedIn Screen shot
Looking for someone for a special project or event? LinkedIn can show you if someone you know knows them.
(Click for larger image)

LinkedIn: Six Degrees Working for You

LinkedIn was conceived as a way for professionals to find and be found by former colleagues (and of course, prospective new ones). The site takes the “six degrees of separation” notion and puts it to work: You might not know a potential new hire or partner directly; but with a large enough network, someone you know, or someone they know, or someone they know, probably does. The site now boasts 22 million users in 150 industries. And while the job listings and referrals are still a big part of the site’s allure, LinkedIn has much more to offer.

For example, LinkedIn is an ideal way to find an outside contractor for just about any need your business may have. Once you’ve established a network, sourcing becomes simply a matter of posting a message to those with whom you linked. And conversely, if you have services to offer, the people you’ve worked with can recommend you.

All initial communication takes place via LinkedIn (provided all parties are members), so you only provide your direct e-mail address when you are comfortable doing so. LinkedIn also recently announced the launch of Company Profiles. These business profiles combine LinkedIn’s network information with your company’s description, key industry statistics and targeted job listings.

LinkedIn is also a powerful research tool. “If you’re still in start-up mode or thinking about launching a business, LinkedIn can be a huge help,” said Canfield. “You can test your idea and get valuable feedback.” And by checking out other people’s LinkedIn Profiles and individual Company Profiles, you can get valuable information about the competitive landscape.

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