Business networking websites, or more generally, "social networking" sites with a business bent are exploding across the Internet. If you've resisted the temptation to join or participate in any of these online communities thinking them frivolous, it's time to reconsider.
Why? For the simple reason that huge numbers of people - maybe your customers - are flocking to these sites. Last year alone, visits to social networking websites soared nearly 800 percent, says the web tracking firm comScore, Inc.
With proper care and feeding, a presence on the right sites can help you build business and professional relationships, generate leads, links and traffic to your website, market your products, services and expertise, and extend your brand.
Here are 10 standout sites with a social networking or community component geared to small business owners, professionals, startup entrepreneurs, or business in general.
10. FastCompany.com - progeny of Fast Company magazine - is attempting to create a unique blend of business journalism and online social networking. Create a personal profile and participate in a variety of community participation opportunities on the site.
9. IdeaBlob is a community site where entrepreneurs and startup business owners can share and grow their business ideas. Each month the best business idea - as voted on by the online community - wins $10,000 to go toward making the idea a reality. This site is sponsored by Advanta, a major small business credit card issuer.
8. Intuit Community is a small business community site created by Intuit, which publishes QuickBooks and other financial software packages. You can join discussions on various Intuit products, or find help with a range of other business management problems.
7. BizSugar is a "social news" site (rather than a networking site) where business owners, managers and entrepreneurs can discover, share and vote for the best business tips, trends, news and strategies.
6. ConnectUp! is a small business user community created by Constant Contact, the popular email marketing site that millions of small businesses and other organizations use to send email newsletters, invitations, promotions, surveys and other items. To participate, you need a Constant Contact membership.
5. Work.com, which I edit, is a place where business experts of all kinds can showcase their expertise by publishing a "how-to" guide on any topic of their choosing. Free membership gets you the power to publish on the site. Guides are linked to an author's profile page and can include links to your own business site. Some also get published on companion site Business.com, one of the highest-traffic pure business sites on the web. Guides published here often appear highly in Google and Yahoo search results.
4. Xingis a Germany-based business networking site with over 5 million members and a greater global focus. It is a major LinkedIn rival in Europe. Xing offers advanced contact management tools that other sites don't have, and helps members discover professional and business opportunities across international borders.
3. Business Exchange, which is run by Business Week, is a Web site that lets you create business topics, collaboratively aggregate content from across the Web and connect with other business focused users around these topics. You can see what info was most useful to others. To do so, View the 'Most Active' tab in the topic to see posts users have read, saved or commented on most. View 'News' and 'Blogs' tabs to dig deeper into the topic. Or click 'Add Content' to post new information you find valuable and want to share with others on an existing topic. Membership is free.
2. Entrepreneur Connect is a new social network for small business owners launched in January '09 by the Entrepreneur magazine group. You can create your profile, starting connecting with other business owners, and explore the community. Membership is free.
1. If you can join just one business networking site, this is it. LinkedIn is an online network of some 19 million business people worldwide, representing 150 different industries. When you join, you create a professional profile that helps you find and be found by former colleagues, clients and partners. Add more connections by inviting trusted contacts to join in your network. Your profile helps you find potential clients, service providers or subject experts, and be found for business opportunities.