The importance of networking in community development
Networking is a vital ingredient for success in many industries. But what is it, and why is it so important in the development of online communities?
Zig Ziglar once said that “You can have everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want”. In this, he showcased exactly why networking is powerful. It connects you to people that you can help and who can eventually help you. Indeed, 80 percent of professionals feel that networking is vital to their career success.
What is networking?
Networking is something that we do throughout our lives, whether we recognize it or not. We share ideas with peers at work, we recommend products and services to our friends and family, we mingle at social events and, of course, we attend formal networking events. It is defined broadly as a way to create links within and between different organizations and communities, to help people achieve their goals, share information and ideas, and create opportunities.
As alluded to earlier, your network can consist of a variety of people including:
- Colleagues and others in your industry.
- Alumni from former employment and education.
- Clients or business partners.
- Online acquaintances (more so since the pandemic stopped many in-person events).
- Other personal acquaintances that you meet at, for example, the gym or social events.
What unites all of these different individuals is having an interest or goal that you both share.
Networking for businesses
For businesses, having a network of people connected through common interests and goals can boost the bottom line. Companies that encourage their people (both customers and employees) to network regularly outperform their competitors financially. This can be achieved in several ways, for example, by holding customer events, webinars, and encouraging networking in your online community. In fact, networking is core to an online community’s success. With an active network, your online community will be buzzing with valuable insights and interesting conversations.
With this in mind, how can you make sure your online community has a strong network right from the outset? In this article, we’ll be focusing on developing your community’s network and how to overcome any challenges along the way.
Why is community networking so important?
Networking generates huge value for an online community. It creates a space for people to meet like-minded peers and share knowledge. Ideas and innovation are fostered by this kind of peer-to-peer connection.
Take, for example, the network created by Springer Nature across its 20 communities. Within them, authors, researchers, editors, and readers can connect with one another to talk about everything from the Covid-19 pandemic and disease modelling to synthetic life and exploring the universe. In doing so, Springer Nature goes beyond the service that people typically expect from a publisher. As Ed Gerstner, Director of Journal Policy & Strategy at Springer Nature explains, “Zapnito enables us to empower our authors to express themselves and to discover each other’s research in ways that few traditional publishing platforms allow.”
Creating active participation in your online community helps your members feel like they are getting a valuable and exclusive experience. And it’ll keep them coming back to see what new discussions are happening among their peers. We all know that it costs more to attract new customers than to retain them — so it immediately pays off if your community members are engaged and constantly returning.
Exclusivity can be a huge factor in persuading people to join an online community – but in some cases it can also be a necessity. This was the case for Wilmington Healthcare when they built OnMedica, a closed community for UK-based healthcare professionals. Through the online community, they can collaborate and learn from one another, without any direct vendor involvement (providing an unbiased view of the healthcare sector and trends). This lack of third-party involvement is crucial when dealing with the healthcare industry, which often requires a secure way for sensitive information to be transferred between professionals.
Creating networks within your online community can also help you harness the power of referrals. Current customers can recommend their favorite products and services to prospects. In other words, they’ll advocate for your brand organically through the community.
Your online network can also help shift your community towards self-sufficiency. Questions can be answered by others in the community, peers can share best practices or help to troubleshoot, and experts can share their unique insights and contribute content. This takes the pressure off of your community managers and can even lower support costs.
Why is networking hard to do?
With so many benefits, you may be wondering why more businesses and individuals aren’t networking. The thing is, networking can be pretty challenging to do consistently and regularly. Less than half (48 percent) of people say that they consistently keep in touch with their network and 25 percent admit that they don’t network at all. In particular, women and introverts are less likely to network regularly.
Limiting your options
Another obstacle to effective networking is in reaching a broad range of people. Our comfort level is to network with people we already know and like — or those from similar backgrounds and perspectives. But this limits you to only a narrow set of viewpoints and experiences, which can stifle innovation and diverse thinking. It also restricts people to only a small group of others who can offer new connections.
Networking also has to be focused in order to have a real impact on someone’s work and ambitions. Honing in on a topic, sector, or common goal ensures that people connect with others that can directly help them. It avoids the ‘spaghetti against the wall’ approach where people connect with every random person that they come across in the hopes they’ll prove useful in the future.
Give and take
Speaking of which, many people dive straight in with a new contact and begin asking for favors or advice. This, while flattering, doesn’t allow the relationship to build over time and can come across as one-sided. In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant explores the unique success that comes when people give willingly, expecting little to nothing in return. He shows that giving, especially as part of a network, is the secret to many entrepreneurs, executives, celebrities, and creatives’ success.
Or, the opposite can ring true. Because people haven’t spent enough time nurturing their contacts and building relationships, they can feel uncomfortable reaching out for help and advice when they need it. Having regular check-ins, even if it’s a short online discussion or engagement with a contact’s recent article, can help to foster strong connections over time.
How to encourage networking in an online environment
Now that we’ve explored the potential hurdles to a successful online network, it’s worth covering how you can encourage people to network in your community.
One of the challenges was in regularly and consistently engaging with a network. Community managers can facilitate this by creating regular opportunities for community members to meet and interact with each other. Having a content plan will be a huge help, giving structure to your content, themes, and any prompts or notifications you may send members. You can also include any particular times when content should be posted (aligned with when most members are online).
Post compelling content
At the start of your community, members may feel reluctant to post and share their thoughts. It will take encouragement to get them to do so on their own, so in the early days make sure there’s a lot of content in the pipeline to begin discussions. Posting questions to spark discussions will also boost engagement. As the community becomes more self-sufficient, your community manager won’t have to post as much content — but it’s still worth having a regular cadence to keep people engaged.
Holding webinars and events alongside your online community can gather people with the same interests and goals, and offer opportunities for networking with fellow attendees. This gives people a focus area to connect with others around. Having dedicated networking time can also encourage attendees to meet.
For example, the SimplyCommunicate community holds its annual simplyIC event for internal communicators to meet and learn from the best in the industry. In 2020, this shifted from a physical to a virtual event, with attendance almost doubling from the typical 300 attendees to over 700 registrations and 560 attendees. The ‘digital venue’ where the event was held was set up to facilitate online networking and people could continue these connections post-event by becoming part of the community.
Focus on rooms and topics
Similarly, having ‘rooms’ as part of your community encourages people to meet others with the same interests and expertise. Connections become much more goal and topic-driven — and therefore more valuable to each member.
Leveraging your community’s experts is another helpful tactic that boosts your community’s exclusivity. People will want to follow and connect with a thought leader, especially if they offer unique insights that help others in their careers. If holding an event, it’s worth making speakers accessible pre and post-event so they can foster connections. As part of your community, highlight the best work of your members or do a monthly member spotlight so everyone can get to know each other.
Set targets and report back
It’s useful to set targets at regular intervals to ensure your community is growing in the right direction and to track progress. This will also help you spot any issues before they worsen, and can help you innovate and adapt your community as its needs change.
For example, you could track the number of new members that join in the first three months post-launch and the number of average connections each member makes. If holding an event, you could also see if the number of connections rises in specific groups and explore why this could be. Don’t forget, your community can also be a useful source of feedback so don’t be afraid to ask your members directly for their thoughts about your online community and network.
Networking is the lifeblood of any community, online or offline – it’s how we turn a one-way flow of information into collective intelligence. By fostering connections in your online community, you develop a space where people can meet to share their knowledge, ask questions, and get support for their work. This will prove invaluable for them and your brand, as they will return time and time again to network with their peers.
Being able to network provides opportunities that people might otherwise not have access to. It can expand their thinking, help them innovate, and explore diverse viewpoints. They may discover a new project, career, or goal that they weren’t aware of before. And all of these positive things will be attributed back to your brand – you cannot buy that kind of reputation boost.
Therefore, one of your top priorities when developing your community should be to provide networking opportunities. Make it easy for your audience to meet other people. Connect people in the right space, around the right topics, at the right time, and it’ll all fall into place.
Ready to see how an online community can expand your network? Request a demo here, or for more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.