Online Networking Leads to Offline Results

08/13/2015 05:23 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2016

How Small Business Owners Can Leverage the Power of Online Communities for Business Success

We are frequently warned that our reliance on technology is eroding our ability to make meaningful personal connections. But as technology continues to improve, it can actually remove barriers and make it easier to identify and cultivate lasting relationships. There are more opportunities now than ever before to experience valuable connections through online communities, which 74 percent of small business owners say have directly impacted their success. As with all innovation, however, continued success is measured by our willingness to be deliberate and thoughtful in how we use it.

Ask the Right Questions
If you are only getting online because you feel you have to be, then you are missing out. Knowing what communities and tools are available, their value, and how each might be applied to your own business is crucial. Andrea Rozman of Your Gal Friday, for example, favors a DIY approach and is more interested in an online community's ability to provide specific information that supports her business needs. This includes links to relevant articles, discussion threads, webinars and other collaborative forums.

Developing a clear strategy from the start can save time and minimize frustration. Begin by asking questions such as: What types of communities are out there? (For example, managed communities run by organizations operate differently from direct communities coordinated by individuals or small groups.) Which of these will be the most appropriate to effectively reach your customers, clients and colleagues? Does your objective for online engagement align with your business mission and reflect the identity of your company? (Identifying an end goal will help define the tools you'll need to achieve it.)

Look for Trends
The amount of information that can be found online can be overwhelming. Like most small business owners, Bonnie Armstrong of Marketing Alliance relies on online communities to stay abreast of the latest and greatest products and tools. But the greater benefit to her business is the collective insight she gains from colleagues, experts or like-minded individuals. In addition to the extensive research Bonnie puts in before she implements anything, she regularly shares what she has learned online if she thinks it will help a customer in any way. As an example, according to Bonnie, "There is one dentist I recently met with and we saved him 67 percent cost on his Google AdWords by using the research we learned in forums."

Growing a business by word-of-mouth is a classic practice that translates well online. There are ever-increasing opportunities online for customers and partners to make recommendations, offer praise and point out where there may be room for improvement. Ratings are still a very effective method of determining value at a glance. Comments attached to ratings, however, provide a more in-depth understanding of the nuances that drive consumer behavior and can help shape important business decisions. Trends come and go, but the value of a trusted opinion is timeless.

Become a Thought Leader
In almost every group, there is one person whose attention is courted more than others and whose opinion carries more weight. In business, these people earn reputations as thought leaders. They are often not only savvy business owners but also generous forward-thinkers who skillfully articulate their vision. Becoming such a person takes more than charisma; it takes experience, strategic thinking and the ability to consistently surpass customer expectations.

Online forums and communities can be a great place to start building your own thought leadership profile. From research--what are some of the hot topics that your peers are concerned about?--to building credibility among your peers by weighing in frequently with your point of view, online forums and communities can be a great proving ground in which to develop your own status as a unique thought leader in your industry.

A Strong Network for a Strong Business
As online relationships continue to become more tied to small business success, who you you know is far less important than how you use those relationships to effect real change. Evolving connections made in online communities beyond tips and product recommendations into a loyal group of brand advocates of is where you will see positioning yourself as a thought leader pay off. The quick wins that come in the form of increased web traffic, email sign-ups and ultimately new customers can only be sustained by building a reputation as a recognized thought leader.

Content may be what drives people to reach out, but strong connections are maintained through consistent networking. For Bonnie Armstrong of Marketing Alliance, these connections take on many forms but all become part of her micro-network. "It's important to have connections with other business owners. You never know when you might need them or they may need you. You never know where it may lead."