For most small business owners social networks remain a bit of a mystery. The majority of Americans are on Facebook, along with several hundred million people from other countries. Around 100 million people around the world are on LinkedIn. Billions of tweets are sent out over Twitter.
Tools like YourBuzz and HubSpot help small businesses use social networks as a means to build brand recognition, stay in touch with existing customers and (hopefully) secure new ones. But if you ask most business owners what they think about social networking, many will tell you that they aren't sure what to think. "It's the kind of thing you do because everyone else is doing it," is something I hear often.
One of the most valuable uses of social networks which is overlooked by most small business owners is the ability to connect with industry peers to learn from each other and support one another. Some companies have recognized this and it has given rise to a cottage industry within social networking—industry vertical networks.
These social networks target specific industries, types of businesses or geographic locations or all of the above. Membership and participation is limited to those that qualify to ensure a productive experience for all. If your industry doesn't have a social network in place yet then why not start one? Here is what you need:
1. Critical mass of interest
If you can secure commitments to join and participate from 50 industry peers then you have critical mass. The purpose is not to compete with Facebook or to impress investors—it’s to have meaningful interactions with people that can help you. Fifty is enough to start. In some cases even having as few as 20 people may justify the effort of getting started.
Fortunately, this is the easy part. Ning is a company that gives you the ability to set up a private label social network for nominal fees. For less than $250 per year, Ning offers the entire technology infrastructure needed to manage a social network with thousands of members.
3. Pain points
Every business has pain points that cause constant grief to owners. You must identify this prior to launching your industry social network to catalyze interest among potential members. What are the pain points in your business? If you had access to the most successful person in the world within your industry what questions would you ask them? These pain points should launch initial discussions.
4. Time and discipline
Everyone is busy and launching a social network—even if it’s only for 50 people—will require effort. Be realistic about the time required to launch one and make sure you are comfortable with this. You must be willing to dedicate at least six months to the project. If after six months of genuine effort the members aren’t collaborating then it’s time to reassess. A big part of the success of an industry vertical social network is ensuring that fresh information is posted regularly, if not daily. If the members aren’t doing this at first then you will need to pitch in more than you’re share.
Instead of tweeting about the condiments on your hamburger or letting everyone know you've “checked in” at the mall, industry vertical social networks give you the opportunity to discuss business issues with other people that are going through the same situation as you. It’s an excellent way to build an informal advisory board almost instantly.
For more tips on how to help build and optimize your business connections, access our exclusive video series with MSNBC: Networking: Making Connections to Build a Better Business.