You’ll receive lots of advice about networking, and some of it will be good. Getting involved with your local Chamber of Commerce, setting up a website blog and enabling comments, and participating in the online social networking scene for your niche can all be effective marketing tools to garner new business and buzz. There are “networking gone wrong” approaches out there too, though. The distinction between a campaign that tickles the public’s fancy and one that pounds prospective customers over the head can be more subtle than you think.

A viral video of your tech guy explaining, with comic asides, about the advantages of regular equipment maintenance, may net you thousands (and thousands) of hits, but content that proclaims in bold letters that you’re out to sell something will result in more ill will than appreciative snickers.

The same thing can be said when your content is more subtle but still only addresses your needs: buy my stuff; fill in my questionnaire; link to my site. To be successful over the long term, networking, whether it is social networking on the web or community networking to establish your brand, has to be give and take. Consumers realize when they’re being played, and even though a little tongue-in-cheek exploitation with a wink can be effective — in moderation — no one likes it when the new kid on the block forgets to share.

Keep Your Networking Practices from Backfiring

Here are some helpful tips for networking responsibly and with good grace. It’s the best way to build your brand:

Maintain fresh and useful online content. Search engines are becoming more successful at distinguishing a page’s overall intent, and visitors are pretty savvy too. If you have clear guidelines for blogs and other content that offer consistent quality, you’re doing fine. If you’re trying to cheat, you may end up being unhappily surprised.

Your efforts may pay off handsomely — or not. Making a killing through your social media and networking efforts is a long shot. As a marketing ploy, if the effort is relatively consistent and well planned, you can probably expect modest rewards in terms of new business, customer involvement, and brand recognition. Anticipating more is like putting all your savings into lottery tickets.

Consider advertising socially. The major social networks and many other well trafficked quasi-social sites offer advertising at reasonable rates. You may be able to morph your networking efforts into an organized social marketing campaign that will be easier to monitor and evaluate than what you have in place currently.

Watch your budget. Creating a company persona on social networking sites, with a dedicated daily blog on your website, or even by sponsoring a local youth sporting event can all get expensive fast. The goal is for your efforts to make money, and sooner rather than later. Before you embark on a campaign, evaluate your expectations realistically, set goals, and revisit your strategy often to make sure you aren’t throwing good money after bad.

Maintaining an online presence and making an effort to personalize your brand are important, but discovering the most realistic, effective and economical approach to those goals is a fundamental and essential undertaking for a small business. Networking isn’t going away any time soon, and being good at it can be a big boon to your business. The key is to network shrewdly, and to recognize when your efforts are, and aren’t, paying off. Will you see results in a month or even six months? Maybe not, but you should establish milestones that will help you recognize when you’re hitting the mark and when you should consider devoting your time and resources to other strategies.

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