But what about online networking? Can people really develop trusted business relationships over the internet? And are these new social networking sites actually helpful in identifying and building those relationships?
In a word, "Yes".
If you work for a large company, chances are that most of your business development activities are not local, and it is very likely that you already do a substantial portion of your business development work via e-mail and other internet technologies. According to the Travel Industry Association's 2006 Trend Report, "A Robert Half Management Resources survey shows that 48% of employees travel for work less frequently that they did five years ago. Businesses have cut back on travel and instead rely on less expensive communications capabilities such as webcasts and videoconferences." Odds are that you're already using these technologies yourself, and undoubtedly, you're using e-mail. So, what do these online business communities offer beyond what you're already doing?
Leverage of existing relationships. Social network visibility sites, such as LinkedIn, Spoke and Visible Path, give you visibility into your existing relationships. If you have a large personal network, it is likely that you know someone who knows the specific person you're trying to reach, or perhaps someone at that company. The challenge is figuring out who that person is. If your direct contacts participate in these systems, then you can easily identify which of your current contacts can provide you an introduction to the individuals and companies you wish to approach.
Focus. Opportunities to interact face-to-face with large numbers of decision-makers in your target industries are probably few and far between - a few conventions a year and perhaps a professional association or two. But online, you can be highly focused in your interactions, as there are niche communities for just about everything you could imagine. Want to connect with CFOs and other senior financial executives? Knowledge management experts? Open source software developers? There are focused groups for all of these that will allow you to connect with the right people for your needs without a lot of irrelevant "noise." You can also immediately search for and locate people in a particular industry, role, and/or company, which is impossible to do in face-to-face and even one-on-one e-mail and telephone interactions.
Increased reach. In person, or even in one-on-one e-mail, there is a practical limit to how many people you can meaningfully connect with in a given amount of time. But in an online community or weblog, you can carry on public conversations, potentially reaching hundreds or even thousands of people with the same effort as a single e-mail. For conversations that do not need to be confidential, such as a discussion of market trends or of companies and products in a particular market segment, a public discussion will increase visibility for your company and provide additional assistance in identifying your potential partners and connecting with them. Your entire network becomes a part-time business development staff for your company.
Reduced time and expense. Networking online allows you to reach more people with less effort; to more quickly identify and connect with the right people; and to reduce travel time and expense, both local and long-distance.