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Business Development in a Web 2.0 World

It’s a Web 2.0 world. Just this week there have been articles in my local newspaper about start-up news aggregator Mixx honing in on Digg’s space, and Google’s efforts to enter the social networking fray. And it’s only Tuesday. Even Business Week has social media fever, with its 2 June “Beyond Blogs” cover story declaring that “the power of social media to transform our businesses and society will only grow.”

Every savvy businessperson knows that it is critical to keep abreast of the trends and understand how they could, and often will, affect how you do business. Whether you work for Genentech or Goldman Sachs, you’d better know how your employees are talking to each other and to your customers—and what the conversation is all about.

Just as the Internet opened up direct lines of communication from Bhutan to Botswana to Bakersfield, California, so too the explosion of social media is transforming the way we connect with our friends, employees, clients and the world at large. As a small business owner or independent consultant, it’s important to understand social media not only so that you can advise your clients on their web strategies, but also so that you can harness the power of the medium to market and grow your own business.

“Social media enables people to tap into a company’s DNA by embracing its dialogue,” says Jason Siegel, managing director at Washington-based Qorvis Communications. “Social networks and blogs let you identify who’s who and offer insights into what makes them tick.”

Take LinkedIn, which boasts a network of over 20 million people in 150 industries. I sometimes think of it as an online Rolodex of your contacts, your colleagues’ contacts, and all the people they know. Why does this matter? If a traditional “grip and grab” happy hour nets you one useful contact, adding that person to your social network can expand the value exponentially. And what about the people you knew in college or graduate school? Where are they working, and who’s in their network now?

Siegel, who runs creative and interactive services for Qorvis, recommends that everyone, at a minimum, have both LinkedIn and Facebook profiles. He also suggests that people join key niche social networks. NING, a site that lets you build your own network, hosts niche networks from iAmTri (for all things triathlon) to streetball aficionados to a network for people who grew up in Bolingbrock, Illinois, in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The last one boasts over 2,600 members.

Building credibility
Joining social networks may be Step One, but how do you work them? Identifying companies and the people there you want to meet doesn’t get you in the door. And social media, for all its power, is only a tool—it’s not a teleport machine to new business.

“Business comes from word of mouth,” says Siegel, “so it’s important to build your credibility.” While it takes an investment of time (and brainpower), he suggests that people consider answering questions related to their expertise on Yahoo Answers or LinkedIn. “Answering questions creates opportunity,” he stresses.

Indeed, this is an era of ideas—and content, which can be picked up by Google and other powerful search engines. The more your content is picked up, the higher your profile. Eventually, people won’t know where they know you from, but they’ll know you.

Blogs can also help build your brand visibility. If you’re blogging regularly, you’re offering up fresh content that can be picked up not only by search engines, but also by blog aggregators, fellow bloggers, and even journalists listening to the conversation on the World Wide Web. My brother Jonathan once had his blog mentioned on Slate.com when a contributing author picked up his entry about Princeton’s Engineering Anomalies Research Project.

If you are blogging, you must be “authentic and relevant,” stresses Siegel. He offers a couple of suggestions for building your visibility. His advice includes breaking premium stories (did you hear something really interesting or novel at a conference this morning? If so, blog about it right away) and building online communities—and a loyal following—by engaging your readers in ongoing dialogue.

Tapping into the potential
So you’re LinkedIn and blogging away—now what? This is where you need to translate your reputation strategy into new business.

Once you’ve identified a company that you want to target, social media tools can help you hone an effective business development strategy:

  • Read everything you can about the company, both institutional and informal. Study the corporate blog, and scour the Internet for what employees, investors, customers, communities and the media are saying about the organization. You might find hints that the company is about to expand operations, is having customer relations problems or is about to be reorganized. Each offers a different strategy for marketing your services.
  • Look for corporate employees in your social networks and examine their profiles carefully. Do they have similar work histories? Do you have a university in common, hobbies you can embrace, or a favorite charity you can join? Identify a strategy for reaching out to them—either online, through a mutual contact, or by figuring out a way to meet them face to face. You just need to find one person willing to listen to you to start out on the right path.
  • Think about how you can link your online strategy to build credibility with this potential client. Perhaps it’s time to answer questions on LinkedIn about how to manage growth, or to blog about tips for a successful corporate restructuring. In other words, make sure your online message mirrors the message you want to send to this company.

Finally, it’s important to remember that business development takes time and patience. There are new tools that can help, but there are few shortcuts. Web 2.0 is at its most valuable in leveling the playing field and giving access to those willing to work our social networks in much the same way that country clubs and good old boys networks once handed the well-heeled a huge edge. That edge is still there, but now the rest of us have more tools that can help us hook up, stay connected and leverage our social networks.

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