By Nikki Pilkington
It's easy to get caught up in the 'online business forum' hype, and find yourself a member of every forum that comes along, flitting from one to the other with no idea of whether they're worth it or not.
I've been a member of various business forums for over 15 years, and here's a run down of some of the ones you may come across, and how they can fit into your business.
The daddy of online business networking, LinkedIn is a serious place for serious business. Once the prowling domain of recruiters and head-hunters, LinkedIn has developed to include some great functionality that helps small and medium sized businesses alike.
With a focus on business to business, you'll find professional profiles of serious business players alongside the usual one man bands and SMEs (small and medium enterprises). Keeping your profile and status updates up to date can result in good contacts, and optimising your profile for search results could bring in business leads.
A great place to find business contacts and suppliers too, LinkedIn is the platform of choice for a lot of business hard hitters.
Previously regarded as a place for teenagers to find out who's dating whom, Facebook has come into its own in the last couple of years as a place for businesses to connect. Renaming their Fan Pages to Business Pages helped, and ensured that it was easy (and free) to promote your business to your contacts and beyond.
Daily updates work best, letting your 'likers' know what's going on in your business, and I don't think I'm giving away any secrets if I tell you that B2C businesses do best, followed by Social Media and Internet businesses.
That's not to say that it's no good for B2B though - a well managed Business Page can engender a sense of loyalty and community and keep your name at the forefront of people's minds when searching for services.
Definitely worth a try if you can commit to the time to build up the 'followers'
Not so much a forum as a community, you'd have to have been under a rock for the past couple of years not to have heard of Twitter. With its 140 character limit on posts, Twitter makes you think about what you post, which is no bad thing in a lot of cases!
You have to 'be in it to win it' but people taking part in Twitter, engaging with 'followers' and starting and answering conversations do best. Treat it as a broadcast only medium and you'll find yourself wondering what all the hype is about.
A great place for customer service, but beware the time it can take - it's addictive and easy to spend a lot of time achieving nothing in the name of 'banter’.
Use a desktop app such as Tweetdeck or a web app such as Hootsuite to get the most out of Twitter.
UK Business Labs
Relatively new on the scene, a rapidly growing business forum with a really helpful community. A really nice mix of B2B and B2C entities, with a focus on help and advice rather than blatant self promotion.
UK based, and mainly one man bands and SMEs, UK Business Labs is a great place to start your online networking, with a friendly community and light handed management.
Again, focus on helping and advising rather than blatant self promotion and the rewards will come in.
UK Business Forums
One of the busiest business forums in the UK and somewhat of an acquired taste, it has been said. A mixture of B2C and B2B and definitely on the smaller end of the size scale where companies are concerned, but a pretty big community if you can break the cliques.
Well worth checking out if you're an SME, but lurk and read for a while first, lest you fall foul of some unknown rule - they're a robust crowd and don't suffer fools gladly!
If you can bypass the happy clappy 'blogs' and ignore the blatant spam, there is business to be had on this ever changing platform. Mainly B2B and definitely one man bands-ville, taking part in groups and blogs can help to develop relationships that will bear fruit.
There seems to be a high turnover of members on the Ecademy site, as people lose interest and leave for pastures new, but with a seemingly never ending supply of new members, if you can stick it out and be consistent, there is business opportunity there.
Blackstar membership seems to be being pushed a lot, with not much evidence of success or suitability; my advice is to stick with the Powernetworker membership and see how it goes.
As with all online networks, it helps if you have a plan, and limit your time to that which you can afford to spend. Treat it as a marketing activity and plan accordingly. It's very easy to spend hours on these platforms achieving not very much so it's important to track and measure, reviewing the results regularly.
There are, of course, other networks, and I'd love to hear your experiences of them for future revisions of this article.
Nikki Pilkington is owner of NikkiPilkington.com, an Internet Marketing company based in the UK and France. She is a regular on many online business forums, offering help and advice on Social Media and Website Promotion. You can find her on Twitter at @nikkipilkington