Copyright 2006 Donna Gunter
If you dislike face-to-face networking as much as I do, perhaps networking online might be more your style. I’m still trying out some online networks like Ryze and Open BC, so the jury is still out on those. What’s bringing me the most success at the moment is online discussion lists and forums.
The discussion list, also called a LISTSERV, comes in the form of an email broadcast to which you subscribe. You can elect to receive each message as it’s posted, or receive a daily or weekly digest of all messages posted to the list. To keep myself sane, I typically subscribe to the daily digest version to reduce the volume of emails I get every day. This is my favorite, as I love the immediacy of email, rather than having to take a few additional steps to participate in a forum. Unfortunately, with the ever-increasing problems of email delivery, I have seen the use of this tool decline over the last few years. Many of the discussion lists to which I belong have been replaced by online discussion forums.
The discussion forum is typically hosted on a web site, and it might also be referred to as an online bulletin board or message board. The messages and replies are referred to as “threads”, and all posts are maintained on the forum so that you can go in read the threads at any time. Some forums offer you the option of being notified when there are any new posts to the forum, or you can select to be notified only if there are posts to topics of interest to you or just to questions or replies you have posted in the forum. I prefer the forums in which I can see a short description of the original post and short descriptions of the replies so I can quickly determine which threads I want to open and read and perhaps respond.
How do you find discussion lists? Scott Stratten maintains a great list of good business-oriented discussion forums at Many professional associations run their own discussion lists and forums, which is helpful if you’re coaching or consulting with others in your own industry.. And, there’s always Yahoo and Google groups, , and another comprehensive list at ,
Here’s what you need to consider to make the most of your online networking and ultimately get more clients online:
1. Lurk on the list for 3-4 days before you post anything. You’ll want to ensure that the list is active (with daily posts) and that your target market is represented before investing a great deal of time and effort into the list. Read prior posts and determine the posting protocols, what kind of information is shared, as well as “who’s who” on the list. I’ve joined a number of lists and discovered that they weren’t as active as I require and so left and found more active lists. In this “lurking” period, you’ll also want to get a sense of the tone of the list — are their posts on-topic and relevant, or are there a lot of self-promotional advertising emails and off-topic posts or “flaming” (derogatory remarks) among the members?
2. Review the rules of the list. The best lists and forums are moderated, which means that there is a real person who volunteers to ensure that the posting rules are followed. Before you post, be sure you read the list or forum rules, which will give you guidelines about how to post or reply to a question and whether or not you can send any promotional emails to the list. Effective list moderators ensure that spammers don’t slip onto the list with spam comments, keep the discussion on-topic and relevant to the purpose of the list, gently remind posting violators of the rules, and ultimately ban repeat offenders from a forum or list.
3. Prepare an effective email signature. Typically lists or forums will permit you to include an email signature as part of your post. There may be a rule about what can be included in the content of your signature or a limit on the number of lines that a signature can contain, so be sure and review the list rules as your craft your email signature. Since most lists prohibit blatant commercial postings, your email signature will serve as your advertisement every time you post to the list. The most effective email signatures have a call to action, typically for a free offer, that a visitor can get by visiting a web site. My email signature contains an offer for a free online marketing toolkit that visitors to my site receive when they subscribe to my email newsletter.
4. Practice good list etiquette. Good list etiquette includes following the posted list and forum rules and being considerate of members. One annoying thing that list newbies will do is include the entire body of the message to which they are responding in their actual response message to a post. If you’re on a discussion list, scanning through a bunch of info that wasn’t deleted from prior posts makes the list reading process very tedious. In your reply to a post, delete all but the relevant sentence or portion of a sentence that is most applicable to your reply, and post your reply under that original text so that the reader who has elected to receive individuals posts can easily follow the conversation thread. Just as in face-to-face networking, you want to be courteous and professional to all of your new virtual contacts.
A second major list and forum faux paus is to send a personal response to the list, instead of to the individual for whom it’s intended. If someone has asked for replies to be sent “off-list”, or if you have a question or comment that doesn’t relate to the overall topic and focus of the list or forum, send the information to the person directly, instead of via the discussion list.
5. Integrity of your posting is important. I’ve been on lists in which a list member has posted a question, followed by an immediate reply from someone else on the list whose service or product perfectly matches the initial request. I’ll then receive an email from the moderator reporting that both of these people have been banned from the list. Why? Because the poster and responder were the same person. This most often happens on lists where commercial posts are prohibited, so someone will create two identities on the list. The person uses one identity to ask the question on the list, and then log in or respond from the second identity, who can post a self-promotional email to the list, within the rules of the list, because it’s a response to a direct request from another member. Don’t get caught being duplicitous — the Internet world is much smaller than you might think, and word travels quickly here.
6. Become the expert on the list. The best way to become a major player in a discussion list or forum is to actively add to the discussion. I don’t mean to simply send a post that says, “Yes, I agree” and that’s it. If you have an answer to a question or a point of view that will contribute to the knowledge being shared, that’s the time to post to the list or forum. By freely sharing your knowledge, information, and expertise with the group, they will come to like, know and respect you, which is the path that needs to be followed before someone will decide to buy what you offer. Remember, the best way to get what you want is to help others get what they want — practice giver’s gain in your online networking. Every contact could be a potential client or customer.
Becoming a regular participant in just a few relevant online discussion lists or forums can be a very effective way to get more clients online. Follow the list/forum rules, share what you know, have a great offer in your email signature, and watch the new visitors come to your web site, subscribe to your blog or email newsletter, and ultimately become new clients.