We all find times when we need to connect with other, especially as businesses owners. Running my first business left me feeling quite isolated for a while. At the time I didn’t have a network of other business owners on hand to talk through problems or ideas, or offer support when it got tough. For many of us, especially in the B2B sector, such interactions are also an important cornerstone in our sales pipeline.
However, it’s not always possible to meet people face to face when you need it. This may be because you’re a mumtrepreneur (or dadtrepreneur) with small children to look after, because you live in a remote or rural location, you might be housebound due to illness, injury, or disability, or you may have a national or international customer base and its simply not feasible to meet your potential clients face to face. I’ve struggled with most of these problems over the years, which has lead me to write this article.
Fortunately we live in the 21st century, and when we can’t get out to meet people we can switch on our laptops, tablets, or phones, and connect with people across the planet.
Where to find business owners online
I’ll start with LinkedIn as this is the social network designed for business. LinkedIn now has over 433 million registered users, and 40% of them are checking into the platform every day. Each day LinkedIn get an astonishing 45 billion page views.
To get off to a good start you should sort your profile out. Simply adding a photo can increase views by 14 time, and listing some skills has a similar effect. There are plenty of good LinkedIn guides out there, but the two I’ve found particularly useful are the Mashable Beginners Guide to LinkedIn, and HubSpot’s How to Use LinkedIn. Once you’ve got you account setup I’d recommend joining some groups. Joining industry groups will help keep you up to date, but spend a minute to think about which groups will attract your customers. To find groups just use the LinkedIn search bar, try adding you country or city for more local groups.
I’d recommend sending a thank you message to new contacts. I really do mean a ‘thanks for connecting’ message and not a sales mail. People are very quick to filter out sales messages and ignore them. In contrast a brief friendly hello message with no agenda will get you a lot of replies. It can also get you a surprising amount of new business.
Facebook is the worlds biggest social media platform, and probably the more important for B2C businesses. At last count Facebook had over 1.79 billion monthly active users and over 60 million business pages. More surprisingly an average user spends an astonishing one-sixteenth of their waking time on Facebook, that’s 50 minutes a day.
Using Facebook for business is a huge topic now. With pages, groups, shops, and advertising there is a lot to cover. I’ll just focus on finding groups here but if you like to learn more there are a couple of great courses online. Have a look at the ‘Facebook for Business‘ course on LinkedIn, or you could try ‘Facebook Ads and Facebook Marketing Mastery‘ on Udemy. I’ve not tried them personally but I have had the latter recommended to me and both courses are highly rated.
You can search for groups on Facebook using the search bar at the top of the page. Type in a relevant term like ‘business’ or search for your profession or industry. There are thousands of groups covering almost any topic you can imagine. Facebook, at the time of writing, shows the search results in sections for groups, pages, and posts. At the bottom of the groups panel you should see a ‘See more’ link. Click on it and you’ll get the full list of search results. Try using place names along with the main search term to find groups local to you or your target customers. If you’re based in Norfolk for example you might try searching for ‘business Norfolk’.
Twitter Hashtags for Business
There is no formal group structure on Twitter, but communities do form around hashtags. Some of these hashtags have set times when ‘members’ are online and tweeting which is great for starting conversations. The types of group range from general business communities to those focused on specific trades and places. The more general the hashtag the wider the potential audience. I look for hashtags that cover my target customer group, but not so wide that a post is just blasted out to everyone.
The best way to find hashtags is to use Twitter’s search facility. The search box has an autocomplete feature so try typing in #biz or #YourLocation and see what it suggests. Next find some of your competitors on Twitter, or other companies that serve the same demographic. See what hashtags they are using and copy and you think might be useful. I’ve listed below some of the hashtags I’ve found useful. With the local hashtags try replacing the place names with you county or city.
|General Business Hashtags|
UK Business Hashtags
For extra points you can group hashtags into meaningful groups based on products, demographics, customer personas, etc. Use a program like Hootsuite which allows you to set up feeds based on multiple hashtags, this will help you to track each group and …
Other social networks
The list above covers the big 3 social networks but is by no means a definitive list. I’ve focused on the groups that I know and use, rather than try to muddle some words together for networks I only have limited experience with. As a rule it’s better to try and master one or two networks, and do them really well, than to spread yourself thin and try and cover every network.
I’d also like to add that my personal experience of many LinkedIn and Facebook business groups is that they have limited conversation going on. Many of the groups get swamped with so much promotional content that it make conversations hard. Twitter is better, though conversations tend to be shorter and are often just an exchange of pleasantries. For a genuine social experience I’ve found old school forums much more successful.
Though they are considered a little old fashioned in today’s social media world they suffer less from promotional posts that often fill the feeds of Facebook and LinkedIn groups (is it because you can categorise posts?). I can’t argue against these promotional posts, I’ve used them and still find new customers through such posts. However, on Facebook and LinkedIn the activity feeds show all posts in chronological order (ignoring pinned posts). By contrast forums categorise posts, and most business forums have separate sections where members can post promotional material. This leaves the main sections free of such content, and more focused on helping to answer members questions and facilitating discussion.
The first challenge is finding a forum that’s relevant to you. Start by looking at your geographic area for popular business forums. My personal favourite in the UK is UK Business Forums, but there are many to choose from. When you’re deciding which ones to join look first to see how often people post, when the last post was, and how many members they have. You want to find forums with a strong following and active member involvement.
You should also look for forums in you sector. While these are less useful from a promotional point of view, they tend to be filled with business owners who understand what it takes to succeed in your profession. If you’re looking for advice, help, or just some moral support, these are by far the best groups to get involved in. Be prepared to spend some time commenting on posts, and writing your own posts. After a while you’ll get to know who the regular engaged members are.
The advice above is very much based on my own personal experience. Other people may find Facebook or LinkedIn more success, or have a different view of forums. This is also a very shallow look at socialising online, and only really covers connecting with people you don’t yet know. As you build relationships with other business leaders you may find your conversations moving from one platform to another.
As a last word I would like to offer a final bit of advice that has worked for me. The best way to approach online networking is exactly the same way you should approach networking in the physical world, your only goal should be to help other people. When your focus is on giving rather than taking you’ll be much more likeable to other, and you’ll soon find people are happy to return in kind.