1. Money

Leveraging Social Networking Sites to Generate Business

By Michael Jones, President of Userplane

Stepping into the conference room, I realize that I'm headed into an appointment with very little information on what's about to happen or with whom I'll be meeting. I know the names of the participants, but would not recognize them if I passed them on the street. Nonetheless, I'm pleased with the opportunity and eager about what may materialize from this gathering.

Now here's the punchline: this entire in-person meeting was arranged online with the assistance of "web introductions," through the business networking service LinkedIn.

Anonymous or "blind" meetings may be a common occurrence for a single adult who frequents dating websites, but it is an experience I had yet to embrace - especially in the business sector. For those who haven't joined one of the ever-growing list of online business networking sites, these services are specifically tailored to facilitate communication and referrals for professional purposes. You submit your contacts, invite friends and colleagues to be part of an "inner circle" of business or personal associates, then use the system to seek "friends of friends" or business contacts of your associates. Soon, this inner circle of contacts expands as individuals are contacted directly or as introductions are made by mutual friends and associates.

Where services such as Friendster, MySpace and Connexion have been successful bringing singles and groups together based on affinity and mutual interests, business-networking services are now offering a parallel experience in the professional world. Along with LinkedIn are such offerings as Ryze and Tribe.net. My take? This use of online, friend/associate-based networking will prove to be one of the most valuable business tools the Internet has yet provided.

Although the number of these services available to entrepreneurs and businesspeople is growing, LinkedIn strikes me as the easiest to embrace, and the most effective. Typically, each service has formal sign-up steps that assist you in creating your online identity. This may include information relating to your current job, previous positions, and general interests. Some business networking sites enable you to publish you own "blog," or join specific community discussion groups.

Often, the key to using a business network successfully involves the creation of your personal friends — or business connections — group. The registration process is similar across the various social networking websites but LinkedIn boasts one of the simplest methods of inviting and maintaining your social network. By simply uploading an exported file from your contact manager, LinkedIn can immediately tell which friends of yours are members of the service. This method of contact maintenance and connection group development makes LinkedIn a breeze to start with, immediately enabling you to gain access to your contacts, without having to laboriously enter emails to discover if associates are already there.

With your account set up and contacts entered, a small but growing network of individuals can now easily search your personal network for relevant business contacts. This may be as simple as entering a name of an individual you're seeking, or specifying a broad search for contacts within a specific industry. This ease of creating personal contacts and developing online business events makes the service much more efficient than the traditional (and often stilted) network mixer.

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