Whenever Kerry Doman heads to a bar after work, she takes her favorite companion, a Dell laptop, with her. She orders a Diet Coke and then logs into to a suite of online networking sites.
Within minutes, the founder and CEO of Detroit-based After5 L.L.C. has cruised myspace.com, linkedin.com and facebook.com while eyeballing the patrons milling about.
“What I'm looking to do is drive people to my Web site, www.after5detroit.com. It is as easy as a click of a button when people meet me through Internet networks,” Doman said, noting she receives 25,000 visitors a month at her site. “Everything I do involves ways to invite friends, link friends, encourage people to participate in After5's events.”
Soon, nearly every professional will have an online profile, a virtual billboard to showcase their face, their talents and competitive strengths, said Kay Luo, director of corporate communication for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based linkedin.com. She helps shepherd one of the largest online business-networking sites, with 102,000 members in the Detroit area and 12 million members globally.
Virtual business networking helps Keith Stonehouse, vice president of Franklin Title Agency in Rochester, raise money for his favorite charities and recruit referrals that wouldn't necessarily come from singing the national anthem at Rotary meetings.
But others insist face-to-face interactions, “hello-my-name-is” badge in place, still hold a vital place in small-business marketing.
“In my experience the online business networks are one-dimensional. Anyone can present anything they want, and there's no way to validate or invalidate if true,” said Doron York, president and CEO of Business Edge International, a leadership coaching company in Bloomfield Hills, who is a member of LinkedIn and Zananetwork.com, a Farmington Hills-based online referral network launched in June.
While York seldom leaves home without his BlackBerry and laptop, he is more inclined to check e-mails from trusted associates and family members than his networks. “You expose yourself to billions of members — a glorified Yellow Pages. You have no ties to these circles,” he said.
But Americans are spending more time online and conducting more commerce online. Omniture Inc., an Orem, Utah-based provider of online business software, recorded 1.4 trillion transactions in 2007 with clients such as eBay, AOL, Wal-Mart and Microsoft, and a company spokesman expects 2 trillion online interactions in 2007.
Along with the big players, thousands of business professionals seek to make their presence known among colleagues and potential customers.
Stonehouse sends regular announcements to his e-mail roster notifying them of in-person networking events, including his own monthly martini group for young business people called Tempus Networking.
“At least half of my business comes from online, out-of-the-box networking, but it is important to have live events as well,” Stonehouse said. “Most other networking groups ask you to make a one-minute speech about yourself. We ask people to take ties off, have a martini and relax while sharing business cards.”
When it comes to online networking, he finds it a fast medium for commercial trade. “If you show people a benefit, remind them of options, people will click with you right away; you are in the same virtual medium,” he said.
After doing business, he makes a database entry for every contact. Contractors, real estate agents, builders and potential home buyers are all grist for the title insurance mill. For any request, he can refer business to his online network of professional associates assembled on the Troy-based networkpods.com. He has a custom profile page that acts as an interactive brochure.
He also maintains a presence on linkedin.com, where users have free access to basic information and pay $19.95 to $200 a month to see something beyond the superficial billboard.
“The first thing I do when I wake up and last thing I do at night is check my business networks,” Stonehouse said.
Elizabeth Blondy, owner of Canine to Five and Detroit Dog Daycare Inc. in Detroit, uses myspace.com to arrange singles events at her Midtown facility. “I can use the search tools to send invitations to just gay men,” Blondy said, noting that she produces separate events for gay and straight singles and posts separate billboards for each interest group.
“We hook the twentysomethings who are addicted to myspace; they wouldn't know of us otherwise,” Blondy said. She makes a point of checking e-mails hourly and her myspace page daily.
Denise Roberts, president of Waterford Township-based D.A. Roberts & Associates, a network and sales-coaching company, says the most effective business owners strike a balance between online business networks and live events.
“Networking is all about building trusted relationships. Virtual networking helps leverage and extend your reach, while physical meetings offer genuine communication,” Roberts said. She is a member of the National Association of Women Business Owners of Greater Detroit, a Business Networking International chapter in Troy and several other groups.
Groups such as BNI teach people to perfect a one-minute speech that describes how an individual's service or store could help other members.
A potential network of successful small-business owners across the world enticed Chris McCuiston to become a beta tester for zananetwork.com, started by industrialist Howard Keating and run out of Grace & Wild Inc.'s studios in Farmington Hills.
McCuiston and his wife, Jenny Vanker McCuiston, own Goldfish Swim School in Birmingham, and teach children and young teens how to swim. “I log onto the network forums to get help with human resource issues,” he said.
Zananetwork was designed to meet the entrepreneurial needs of the McCuistons and similar businesses. “The key design is to match up people looking for the same thing through a social-business network,” said Keating, the CEO. “You can operate from your house and be a global company.”
McCuiston can work from a small office in a running suit, asking questions of his network as they crop up instead of putting on khakis and a dress shirt for formal meetings on a monthly basis.
“With zananetwork I can log on to the forum any time of day or night, detail out my situation and get response,” McCuiston added. “My questions involve hiring, documenting and firing. I get help from a controlled environment.”