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Does it work?

Networking On the Internet

By Ned Barnett

This is an economy where so many traditions seem to have been turned upside down. But, when the chips are down, some things remain the same — only more so.

Networking has always been a key method for developing business. Tried and true, it leads to strong, productive, mutually beneficial relationships. But, does networking stand the test of time? Does it work where the vast majority of networking does not rely on face-to-face, up-front-and-personal contact?

Does it work on the internet?

The best way to find out is to ask a pro. Ned Barnett, founder and list owner of SSPRA, graciously accepted our invitation to share his experiences here. If anyone has an inside handle on this question, Ned does. He founded SSPRA, a professional networking list, four years ago and has seen the list members produce 30,000 emails, many of which have resulted in productive networking alliances.

This is what he has to say regarding effective networking on SSPRA:

The Process

Networking begins with answering questions (like this one, but generally related to a client's needs). It includes offering useful, insightful ideas someone may not have thought of and sharing resources that you have that they might use for a specific instance. In short, proving your worth, directly, by helping out.

Networking continues by showing a real interest in what the other person is doing (and why they're doing it, and perhaps for who). This can be done by connecting them with third-party resources (I recently put a list-member together with a former client of mine - both are in the same geo-market and have an interest in the same niche ... who knows, they might be able to help one another out). It can be done by sending them a URL or a real-world resource. Something that shows an interest. It can even be a bit off-beat - one list-member also runs a lavender farm; and my wife's grandmother's family name was Lavender (and my wife has an affinity for the flower), so that was a human touch that might help.

Then networking moves forward by making the offer (hey, if I can help) or even by asking the question (can I help you with this or other clients ...) - or whatever the question is. You seldom get the business if you don't ask for it.

So, when a colleague has a first-time-ever healthcare client, I might offer to help - I've got lots of experience there. I did that for one list-member almost four years ago - and now, I'm writing brochures and plans for her on clients totally unrelated to healthcare.

By the way - this process - it's never calculated (i.e., the desire to help has to be real), but never totally unconscious (i.e., I always am aware that a benefit might be in my future).

By this, I mean the following. Every time I can answer a question and add value, I try to - that's because:

a. I really do like to help - it gives me some personal validation (as the mind mechanics might say) that I welcome

b. I realize (and accept the fact that) I might provide help for free that - in an ideal world - I could bill for ... but I accept that if I give it away, that's OK - it was my choice to give it away. Consider it a free sample - not everybody likes free samples, and not everybody who likes them decides to make a purchase ... but still, in this list environment, free samples are valid low-key marketing approaches

c. I know if I help now, it heightens my chance of being helped in the future, when I need help (i.e., what goes around comes around)

d. I realize it might, directly or indirectly, ultimately lead to positioning me for business down the road.

Sure, “c” is a bit calculating, and “d” seems really focused - but if I didn't enjoy helping, it would show, and my answers would come across crass and commercial. So while I'm aware that there might be some down-the-road benefit, I'm not offering to help primarily (let alone exclusively) to get business back. Instead, I'm trying to build a collegial network — and where that goes is where it goes.

Anyway, that's how it goes.

Does it Work? You Bet!

Two successes that are no secret (ones that are “secret” aren't really secret — it's just that I don't have an OK from the list-partner to mention them) - i.e., ones that have been discussed here on the list before include:

1. After a lot of help along the way (it went both ways), I formed a long-lasting partnering relationship with Terri, one that lasted through five or six clients over a period of nearly two years.

2. A very nice you-scratch-my-back/I'll-scratch-yours with Peter - he got me passes to InfoWorld and I nominated him for an industry reward he won ...

Some that without names are also exemplary:

1. I referred a list-member to a prospect I'd heard about; she got the account, and I got a nice little thank-you (unexpected, but totally welcome)

2. I was referred by a list-member to a prospect who became a successful project client - then was able to help the list-member with two small (but thoroughly enjoyable) projects

3. Almost four years apart, I got two fascinating media pitch projects from a list-member who apparently felt I knew the niche markets

There are a lot more, but these all developed using basically the approach I mentioned above.

Make It Work For The Benefit Of All

When someone on a list asks a question, do not answer directly to that person - answer to the list. Even if they say it's OK to contact them off-list, answer them on the list. There are several good reasons for this:

1. Speaking purely as a list-owner now, lists are meant to carry discussion threads — offers to take a general discussion off-list, while well-meaning (usually by people who don't want to impose on the list), actually defeat the purpose of the lists themselves.

2. Your answer to the list will trigger other discussion - or perhaps follow-on questions - and either way, this may - perhaps - create more opportunities to add additional thoughts to the discussion.

3. More relevant to networking - if you share to the list, then chances are that lots of other folks with similar career challenges (similar to what triggered the initial question) will also see the answer, and benefit from it. Thus, you will be positioned better with them.

4. Folks who don't have that specific problem but nonetheless read the answer will - potentially - be impressed with both your professional insights and your willingness to share. As Rob Frankel might say, this builds your brand with potential future prospects - indirectly, in most cases, but it's still a value.

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Ned Barnett, owner of Barnett Marketing Communications has been a public relations practitioner for more than 30 years, working about equally on the client-side and the agency-side of the business. His specialty is that of a high-end generalist, and perhaps his most distinctive professional trademark is his ability to adapt techniques and solutions from one market niche and apply them to other markets or challenges.

Barnett provides strategic insights and tactical implementation for a wide range of clients, and has focused on advocacy, high-tech, healthcare, publishers/authors - and, perhaps oddly, since 1985, he has almost always had at least one client - a PR firm, ad agency, market researcher or strategic planner - who should have been a competitor, but who instead retained Ned to promote themselves.

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