Harnessing the Power of Technology to Network On-Line

Networking on-line is an integral component of today’s business. Employers are busier than ever, and expectations are high, not to mention immediate. To take advantage of this “want it yesterday” mentality, there are several things a professional must consider to effectively activate their on-line networking strategy.

Below are some key suggestions and links to helpful Internet resources.
With the right balance of electronic and human interaction, you will better serve your existing customers and be quick to acquire new ones.

Rules of the Game:

1. Avoid Spamming. Spamming is when you send unsolicited information to one or several individuals on-line. It is the equivalent of “junk mail” in your mailbox, and it can blemish your business reputation with your audience. Most people do not like receiving spam, so it is critical that you only send items that they have “opted-in” to participate and always provide them with an easy method to unsubscribe. Use an e-Newsletter distribution system, rather than sending mass emails from Outlook or other email programs. This will enable you to send personalized messages, manage campaign results and build your business in a positive, professional way. There are many web based applications for you to consider, and they range in costs and services. One that I personally use and have found to be very affordable and user friendly is Constant Contact (www.constantcontact.com).

2. Respect Subscribers Privacy. Clearly state, at the bottom of your message and on your website, how you plan to utilize personal data that is collected. Since identity theft and selling of personal information is of great concern to most on-line citizens, it is important to establish secure and well thought out privacy policies, then actively employ them.

3. Mind Your Frequency. While electronic communications can be incredibly timely, inexpensive and easy to produce – it’s important that you don’t become a nuisance to your customers by over-communicating with them. If you are distributing an e-Newsletter, for example, either provide your subscribers with a preferences setting where they can choose the frequency of contact with your organization or limit your mailings to no more than once per month. In addition, when sending regular email, it is always courteous to give the recipient 24 – 48 hours to respond. It may take longerâÂ?¦ remember, these are busy times we live in, and if you are waiting on an important (time-sensitive) response, then it’s better to phone them to discuss the matter or arrange a face-to-face meeting.

4. Net Etiquette (Netiquette). Brush up on your email, IM (instant messaging) & chatting skills. Learn the most commonly used on-line acronyms, abbreviations and electronic correspondence protocol. Reference “Learn the Net’s: Email Etiquette” page at http://www.learnthenet.com/english/html/65mailet.htm or “Net Lingo” at http://www.netlingo.com/emailsh.cfm for more information.

5. Only communicate items that you absolutely don’t mind having in writing. This should be common sense, however many people make the mistake of sending messages which contain sensitive information, include strong emotional tones, create confusion that leads to misinterpretation, etc. You definitely do not want to alienate the people you’re reaching out to, so take your time and extra care when fashioning your message. If you feel distracted or emotionally influenced while writing it, then take a break and come back to it when you’re more relaxed, level headed and thinking clearly.

Methods of On-line Networking:

1. Email. Email is the obvious first choice when you want to communicate directly to your customers over the Internet. Remember to be concise & clear with your message. Also be aware of spam-blocking, internet security & firewall software packages which may prevent your message from reaching the intended recipients.

2. Join a social networking community. There are many to choose from, from Yahoo! Groups to MySpace. The key to these environments is “connecting” and “building relationships”. Remember, don’t just spam and plaster your advertising all over the place. Invest time to interact with your customers, answer questions, provide information and be genuine.

3. E-Newsletters. Create a spot on your website where new subscribers can register to receive your periodic communications. Then deliver your content on time and at the intervals you promised. Bring value to your message by providing something more than just a sales pitch. Offer discounts, promotions, links to goodies (images, screensavers, downloads, etc.) that will entice the reader to interact and respond to your call to action.

4. Instant Messaging. Be careful with this one, as it can become an overwhelming nuisance if uncontrolled. As opposed to email, IMing makes you available to customers immediately while you’re on-line (and visible). IM tools are great because you can usually transfer files, add multiple people to a ‘group IM’ and keep track of individuals on your buddy list. If you use multiple versions of IM software (such as MSN, Yahoo!, ICQ, AOL IM, etc.) then consider downloading Trillian which allows you to access all of those programs from one interface. You can find out more about that free software here: http://www.download.com/3000-2150-10047473.html . But remember, if you find yourself “hiding” or putting up your “away” message more often than not, you are defeating the purpose of using such software.

5. Virtual Conferences. This is an especially attractive option with ever increasing gas/fuel prices and travel expenses. Whether you are dealing with clients across town or around the globe, it doesn’t take much to set up a virtual conference, and you’ll save time & money in the process. Some of the easiest programs to use are WebEx (www.webex.com) and GoToMeeting (www.gotomeeting.com).

6. Contact Management. In any business environment it’s very important that you keep all of your contact information up to date and conveniently accessible. Plaxo is one of the most well known web based contact management programs (which integrates with Outlook & Outlook Express) and performs their time-saving services free of charge (basic version). Plaxo securely updates and maintains information in your address book, and gives you the tools with which to share your information with over ten million existing Plaxo members. So, there’s a good chance that your friends, family, customers & business partners are already a part of the Plaxo network. Find more details at www.plaxo.com .

7. Chat / Forum Hosting. Many businesses are now including chat & forum options on their corporate websites to foster more frequent communication between themselves and their customers. The important consideration here is that your business has the resources to maintain such areas, keeping them fresh and current. Maintaining an empty chat room or sparse bulletin board serves no purpose other than taking up space and making your site seem outdated or unpopular. However, scheduling interesting topical chats at different dates/times during the month or engaging participants in a lively forum, can truly turn your site into a “community” rather than just an on-line billboard. Check with your local ISP (Internet Service Provider) to see if they offer enhancements such as chat rooms and bulletin boards for your web site. Many provide these services free of charge as well.

By taking advantage of these great on-line opportunities, you can enhance your current networking relationships and reach out to your audience in a convenient and immediate way. They will definitely appreciate you joining them in the 21st century, and offering them ways to communicate in the varying digital formats that they prefer.

Lori St-Germain is a freelancer who lives in the Adirondack mountain region of upstate New York. She is an accomplished writer, graphic/web designer and dedicated wife. She has two children (miniature schnauzers) named Scooter and Radar. To contact the author, please write to lori@jingledog.com .

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