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Getting Started

How to network online

SME owners can use social media to develop new business contacts and help power their company’s growth. We find out the do’s and don’ts of digital networking

How to network online

New businesses can’t survive on just great ideas. You need to quickly develop customers to get revenue in and build up credibility.

Networking can help you market your wares and build vital business relationships, but it’s no longer just confined to noisy drinks receptions or conference coffee breaks.

It was social media that Lucy Smith, owner of Press and PR Consultancy Smith Communications, turned to when looking to kickstart her new business in 2014.

Getting started

“I previously worked in property and development, so I wrote a blog that showcased my sector knowledge and posted it onto specialist housebuilding groups on LinkedIn,” she says. “I just wanted people to see it but, amazingly, I got a contract from a business in one of the groups which continues today. I had never met anyone in that business before, but they trusted me based on my experience and the content of the blog. That is the power of digital networking.”

Since then Smith has developed further contacts on LinkedIn and to a lesser extent Twitter and Facebook where she shares content and reads others’ opinions and articles. “I get an idea what people elsewhere are talking about or how they dealt with a particular issue,” she explains. “It’s quicker and more direct than face-to-face networking where it can take a while for a conversation to warm up.”

Carl Reader, director of d&t Chartered Accountants and small business champion, is also a fan. He has a social media following of over 120,000 people across various platforms. “Online networking has been fundamental in our growth. It gives us a human face leading to new work opportunities through referrals and recommendations from our network. It all comes from consistently developing those relationships and being human and relatable,” he says.

Reader calls on digital networkers to be ‘true to themselves’. “In the digital space it can be easy to put out something which isn’t you. Perhaps an opinion or a boast that you would never make face to face. Don’t do this because you will line up a problem down the line if you can’t deliver,” he says. “Introverted people, who might find it more comfortable to log on for half an hour than go to an event, need to be wary of this. But as long as they are themselves then even the shyest person can network effectively.”

Common sense

Andy Lopata, author and international speaker on business networking, agrees that personability and etiquette is vital. “It is about common sense and remembering it is a personal, social network. So, don’t play a numbers game and contact everyone you can think of with a connection request or new blog or video,” he explained. “It is not an advertising hoarding or a sales session because selling to strangers on social media just doesn’t work. People buy people so take time to build and nurture your network. Like and comment on other peoples’ content and tag something which is relevant to them not just you.”

Entrepreneurs clearly have to develop a digital networking plan. “It needs to fit in with your overall digital strategy,” says Martin Brown, chief executive of business advisors Elephants Child. “Too many businesses dabble in networking with articles not relevant to their operations. They also struggle to understand the different platforms. On LinkedIn it is a professional network, where Facebook is friendlier and more jovial. On Twitter you can plug in to regional or sector specific business groups and share news and advice. With each one you need to understand how it will help grow your business and gain lead generations.”

Lopata adds: “You don’t need to stick to dry technical content when sharing on LinkedIn. You can, for example, mention good training courses you attended or share a link to an interesting article you have read. Instagram or Twitter followers may be more receptive to social engagement such as photos of holidays or concerts. Just don’t get too personal, especially when you are drunk or emotional. Your digital footprint could trip you up!””

Network contacts can also help businesses grow if they act as influencers. “You can build up a mass global community on social media who will promote your brand. Witness the success of say F2 Freestylers as global social influencers on Instagram, and the rise of retail brands like Gymshark as a very current retailer,” Brown says. “It is about awareness and nudging but also having compelling and relevant content.”

​Where the opinions of third parties are offered, these may not necessarily reflect those of St. James’s Place.