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Business networking is one of the oldest ways to get leads and grow your business.

But how do you do it online? Start with your website.

Websites are great candidates for networking. They’re active 24-7. They don’t get tired. They don’t judge people who get in contact. And they should be able to respond to anyone who reaches out.

So how does your website do all this? Let’s look at the key elements of online business networking as they compare to traditional offline networking. Then you can see how your site lines up.

Business Associations and Networking Events

You can’t network unless there are other people there. If you want to meet people, the first thing you do is to go to the places where other people hang out. Online, that’s social media.

Choosing where to network

Of course, you don’t want to meet just any old people. You want to meet the right ones. Potential clients. People from related businesses who might be able to refer leads. Experts. So you choose your networking events carefully. Choose your social media networks the same way.

Let’s imagine you’re selling HR software. Offline, you might belong to 2 or 3 different Chambers of Commerce, because they’re active in areas where a lot of your target clients operate. You might belong to a group of IT software providers, so you can get peer support and referrals. You might belong to an HR-focused group or association, because you’re selling to HR professionals. They all run events. You attend them all, you see what happens. Over time, you work out which ones are most effective for you.

It’s similar online. The social media networks which are going to be most useful to you are those where your target market spend time. For B2B, that normally means LinkedIn. Lots of people both B2B and B2C are active on Twitter.  Image-based networks like Instagram, Pinterest are an obvious choice if your business lends itself to images. Think before and after shots for builders, gardeners, stylists and so on. Video on Youtube can be powerful too – and they don’t always need to be expensive ones with high production values. So our HR software provider might shoot a 3 minute video on ‘how to create a new employee record’ or ‘how to generate annual leave reports’. People aren’t interested in the lighting and the sound track. They want information to get a job done.

Narrowing the focus of social media networks

Many social networks are really wide and general, so you need ways to focus  your effort. Intelligent use of keywords (and hashtags on Twitter and Instagram) comes in here. It’s both how you search the network and how you get found. They’re the online equivalent of membership directories – except much more user-friendly.

If you’re using LinkedIn, join a range of groups – and be active in them. Try to target groups where your potential customers hang out – not your competitors!

Dress Rules

Man in casual clothes looking at his reflection in the mirror - the reflection shows him in business wearIt’s an unwritten rule of business networking. You dress to suit your market.

  • If you’re networking with big corporates, or in fields like investment and banking, you’re probably in a suit and tie.
  • If your clients are mostly small businesses, you’re probably in smart business casual.
  • If you’re networking with creatives, – actors, musicians or whatever – it probably doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, but it must have style.

Your website is exactly the same way. The look and feel of your website design should suit your market. That’s dressing appropriately.

What you say at networking events

Your posts on social media networks are like ice-breakers. They’re invitations to start a conversation. Once conversation starts, you hope that people will want to know more about your business. Offline, they ask you about it. Online, they visit your site. Essentially, your site is hosting a networking event all the time. Telling people about you and your business. That’s where the content of your website comes in.

Two robots shaking hands - symbolising automated intelligent networking

Robots with glowing heads handshaking on green textured background, front view

Interacting with people you haven’t met before

Many of the people who visit your site have never seen it before. They want to know a bit about you. They don’t want a hard sell. It’s exactly the same as when you first meet somebody at a networking function. You don’t immediately say, “Quick, buy now! I need to have all your details and your business card before I talk to you.” Instead, you have a chat. You share some information about your business. What you do. Some of the clients you’ve worked with. Successful project. If you’re in a service business, you might give a bit of generic advice.

You try to get them interested. Asking questions.  If you’re a smart networker and someone’s asking you lots of questions, you say, “Give me your card and I’ll send you some information when I get back to the office.” Now you’re exchanging contact details.You can get back in touch with this person after the event. And you’re going to give them some value, so they like you. It’s a step closer to a sale, but it’s still not a sale.

Online business networking uses premium content (also known as ‘lead magnets’) to get contact details. It’s when you go from generic, low value information to something a bit better. You hide this content behind a form, so people have to give you their email address.

Premium content is a small step in building the relationship. It’s an exchange – just like the exchange of business cards, or email addresses. And if somebody doesn’t like it? Wants everything for free, won’t even share an email address with you? Well, it’s going to be very hard to get them to buy from you. We’ve all come across the people who ask for lots of advice and help, but don’t want to pay. The best thing to do is just let them go. (By the way, they’re much less annoying online than in the offline world. Why? They don’t take up your valuable time and stop you doing something more useful!)

What about people you’ve met before?

Another thing to remember is that often you meet someone several times before you move to this stage of sharing specific information. They may not have been interested in your service before. (They didn’t have any staff, so they didn’t need HR software.) Or maybe there was one specific thing you offer which didn’t come up in the first conversation, but which piques their interest when you finally mention it. (Their biggest headache is rostering part-timers, and they didn’t know your software could do that.) The same thing happens online. People may visit your site multiple times before they’re prepared to take that next step, download something and share contact details.

If you’re meeting someone for the 4th or 5th time, you don’t have the same conversation you had when you first met them. It’s the same online. Your website needs to cater to first time visitors and those returning. At the most basic, you have overview pages and more detailed pages. On a more advanced level, you have a blog. Or a news section. You show you have something fresh to say. New case studies and testimonials are great too – they show you’ve got new clients. It can be challenging, but so is networking offline!

Referrals

When you network, you don’t only talk to people who are customers.

You talk to people who are influencers. You talk to people who have related expertise or deal with a similar customer base. Sometimes, you’re talking to someone and they say, “I know so and so and you should talk to them.” That’s a referral.

Online, referrals are called back links. They’re other people who link to your site. The more people who link to your site, the better known you are, the more referrals you get. They’re wonderful because they tend to hang around for a long time.

Bear in mind, anything you post on a social media network is only there for a little while. There’s always new stuff coming in and pushing it out of the limelight. But if you can get links to your site from well respected authorities within your area, those links hang around and they stay there. It’s like having people offline who are always keeping you in mind and mentioning your name whenever they meet anyone they think you could help.

Following up after networking events

row of seedlings, getting gradually bigger in size, with a hand dropping water on them to feed themOnce you’ve exchanged cards with somebody you met at a networking function, you don’t normally ring them up and try and sell something to them at the next meeting. You have some more one-on-one interactions. You might ring up and meet for coffee. Ask some questions, find out a bit more about their business. Tell them about things you’ve done which might be relevant, see if they’re interested.

This process aligns with a part of marketing automation which is called lead nurturing.

Lead nurturing – the initial follow-up

It’s a tailored sequence of emails, giving information and help – as relevant as possible to the topic this person is interested in. In offline business networking, you tailor the way you follow up with someone based on their responses. Online, you can do that with lead nurturing too. Imagine someone clicks on your link in your email and reads about rostering. In a face-to-face meeting, that would be a flicker of interest in their eyes when you mention the topic.

I can’t repeat enough that the emails should be ‘as relevant as possible to the topic this person is interested in’. For example,

  • Somebody reads my post about creating personas and downloads the persona template. I know they’re interested in personas. So I can send them something about how to specify marketing to match particular personas. Or how to specify target markets.  Or how to think about customer emotion in their marketing. They’re interested in understanding their customer, and all those topics are related to understanding customers.
  • A different visitor downloads a guide to optimizing images for the web. I know they’re interested in images. So I might send them follow up information on why images matter. Or the use of video and whether it’s better or worse than images. Or how to choose images; alternatives to stock photos; useful tools for re-sizing your images and so on.

What to do when follow-up doesn’t get a response

Of course some people won’t respond to any of your follow-up emails. That’s fine too. It’s happens offline too. But when it happens offline, you don’t ring those people every day with increasingly desperate offers. You call a few times. You don’t get through, or you do, but you can’t get them to pin down a time to meet. In this case, the gracious thing to do is to bow out for a while. You can always revisit at a later date – timing and circumstances can make all the difference. (I know, I recently had a client call to take me up on a proposal from 12 months earlier!)

Online, your lead nurture is the initial follow-up calls. When you get to the end of it and your lead hasn’t taken the bait, treat them graciously. Send an email saying something like

I hope some of the information was useful and if there’s anything you’d like to discuss, I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, I’d like to keep in touch, so I hope you don’t mind that I’ve added you to my newsletter list. If you don’t want that, just unsubscribe at any time.’

Simple, and polite. You haven’t harassed them, but you’re not completely out of contact either.

Is your website an online networking star?

To sum up, you can see how all these elements of offline business networking translate online business networking using your website. It’s a different way of looking at your website and your online presence. I hope it brings you insights about what you’re doing right and what you could improve – and why all these aspects of your website matter.

One more thing to remember – just as in offline networking, if you really want results, you need to get all the elements right. Doing only two or three of them well won’t work.

So take another look at your website. Ask yourself how well it networks. What’s holding it back? What could it do better?

If you’re not sure, or if you’d like some help fixing some issues, here’s where to find us!