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HOW TO: Build Your International Business Network Online

International business requires an international network. But, unless you own a private jet, there are obvious obstacles to networking in person with people who live in other countries.

Thankfully, the web is truly worldwide, and these obstacles can be easily overcome with a little online networking and social interaction. We asked people who have successfully accumulated large online international networks about their recommendations for getting started. This is what they had to say.

Add your own tips for building an international professional network via the web in the comments below.

1. Join International Groups and Networks

Participating in online discussions that include international voices is a primary way to make connections and expand your international network. E-mail lists, online groups, and networking sites are easy ways for getting involved in these discussions.

Shel Horowitz, a publishing consultant who started an international business ethics pledge that includes signers from more than 30 countries, says he’s met most of his international contacts through online discussions.

“Over a period of time, people exchange information, answer questions, pontificate on whatever is going on in the publishing world,” he says. “And not only did I develop an international network of friends and colleagues through this, but also a considerably greater expertise in the publishing consulting I do.”

What kind of discussions you join will depend upon what your networking goals are. “You have to find a niche and decide who you want to meet,” says Vinil Ramdev, an India-based consultant for entrepreneurs. “Because if you’re an actor and you’re only meeting entrepreneurs, that’s not going to help.”

Social networking sites like LinkedIn or community platforms like host discussions that you can search by interest, meaning you can find relevant international topics with the right search terms. E-mail lists from your alma mater, professional societies, and any organizations you belong to most likely have international members, as well. If you’re looking specifically to meet international contacts, however, you might also consider:

  • Viadeo: Like LinkedIn, but oriented for European business
  • An invite-only business networking platform for China
  • A Small World: Another invite-only networking site that links members with other members, discussions, and events related to their interests
  • Internations: Connect with expats living around the world. Membership is invitation-based, but you can request an invitation, so you don’t actually need to know a member.
  • Xing: Like LinkedIn, but has a stronger presence in Europe
  • Sandbox Network : Designed for the most influential people under age 30, this by-application-only social network has “ambassadors” in more than 20 cities.
  • MeetingWave: This site allows you to search for networking events and meetings by interest and location. Look for international networking events near you.
  • GeeksOnaPlane: Promotes cultural exchange through technology and entrepreneurship. You can request an invite to join the group on their international travels.
  • Orkut: This is Google’s social networking site, which is quite popular in Brazil and India. You can target your posts by groups of friends, such as “Work Buddies” or “International Contacts.” All you have to do is create and name a category of contacts and add people. This feature allows you to keep your work and personal lives separate.

You may have noticed that some of these networks are invite only. But you should be encouraged, not intimidated, by the exclusivity, says Severin Jan Ruegger, the co-founder of the Sandbox Network.

“With LinkedIn or Facebook anybody can join. And I don’t dispute that they’re helpful in certain situations,” he says. “But sometimes there is a lack of trust. And in any relationship there has to be some trust.” In Ruegger’s experience, people are more approachable, helpful and willing to talk to him in invite-only networks.

If you’re looking for an invite, Rawn Shah, the author of Social Networking for Business and a member of the Social Software Enablement Team at IBM, suggests that you check your existing connections to see if they are members of the group you want to join. Some sites, like Sandbox, have application-like invitation processes, in which case you can just apply.

Another option is to create your own e-mail list or group, which is what Horowitz did when the e-mail list he was on stopped meeting his needs.

“I just announced to that list that I was starting another list and that this was what was going to be different, and a critical mass signed up very quickly,” he says.

2. Don’t Forget About the Classics

While targeting international networks and groups is effective, networks that you may already belong to, like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, can also be extremely helpful if leveraged properly. In fact, Horowitz says his first international speaking gig came from LinkedIn.

Ramdev uses these networks to stay in touch with people after he has met them online, at a conference, in a webinar, or by commenting on a blog. “E-mail is very hard to send because it’s one on one,” he says. “If I update my Facebook status, though, I have 30 or 40 people commenting on it.”

It’s important not to go overboard while inviting people to your network on these platforms, however. “More connections doesn’t necessarily mean better, stronger relationships that help you in business,” he says. “Work first on interacting on a regular pace with your peers in the group through the discussion.”

Shah also recommends limiting the number of groups you’re involved in on sites like LinkedIn as well: “You want a productive relationship, which means that you should interact with others in the group for some time (at least a few weeks), and decide for yourself if it is worth staying in,” he says. “This means that it will take time to form your relationships in each group. The effort is not wasted, however, if you decide not to stay. It gives you perspective into different views and mindsets. Also if you look across groups, you might find the same names appearing repeatedly as they post. They may be worth getting to know.”

It’s also worth understanding that different networking sites are popular in different countries. The above mapuses data from Alexa and Google to show which sites are the most popular in each country.

3. Attend International Conferences and Webinars Online

Luckily, there are a lot of webinars and live-streamed conferences out there. Seek out these opportunities to connect with industry professionals, and when you attend, make sure you stick around for conversation. After you physically attend a conference or seminar, you generally make small talk with your fellow attendees and the host after it ends, right? There’s no reason you can’t do that online as well.

“It’s a little more difficult obviously, however, the approach is very similar to offline,” says Ruegger. “You might also do that by chatting or sending a quick e-mail to follow up. It can also be personal. It doesn’t have to be very stiff and business-like. Something that makes you approachable, that makes you nice.”

Shah suggests taking advantage of the bio and contact information that is usually posted for each speaker by making contact after the seminar. It’s also helpful to chat with the group in the group space during the webinar or contact individuals about a comment they made or a question they asked during the webinar.

Another great way to stay in touch with your online international contacts is to invite them to your own webinar, which you can create using tools like Supercool School.

4. Find a Way to Interact With Your Contacts

Collecting contacts internationally isn’t merely a matter of adding connections to your social sites. If you want a valuable international network, you’ll need to stay in touch.

Ruegger’s approach is to be as helpful as possible. “Send opportunities, links — anything that you know these people would value. Send it over, give a contact, introduce people, and bring people together,” he says. “[It’s] just like offline. Introduce people to each other. All these interactions over time will build you a network that needs to be nurtured.”

Ramdev stays in touch with his network, which is mostly composed of entrepreneurs, by linking to information that will be relevant to them on his Twitter feed (as pictured above).

5. Make Your Web Presence Internationally Friendly

When Horowitz started his first web page in 1996, he took very seriously the phrase “world wide web.” His page included an introduction that was translated in a number of languages and apologized for an inability to translate the rest of the page.

Today, he is able to use a WordPress plug-in called Global Translator that automatically translates his site into 48 different languages.

Horowitz also started the International Association of Earth-Conscious Marketers and recommends using the word “international” in any discussion groups or e-mail threads you start. “Having the word ‘international’ in print says, ‘you are welcome, we want your input,’” he says.

6. Understand How Networking Differs in Other Cultures

“There are significant differences in culture that alter the way you network,” says Ruegger, who has spent time living in China and several European countries. “American people have a tendency to understand networking and its purpose as possibly useful, but it’s much harder on an Asian continent.”

Ruegger says the best way to learn about networking in other cultures is to live there. For instance, while living in China he learned that it’s not culturally appropriate to criticize people or make suggestions in a public setting like a forum.

Obviously, moving to another country isn’t an option for everybody. But you can still take cultural differences into account. “Even though it may be virtual, people instinctively transfer the work behaviors, norms and expectations from the physical world into the online world,” Shah says. “There are many books on working with international cultures which would be a good start. Search Google or Amazon for “Doing business in [country].”

You can also use a site like Forrester Research to learn about how people use social media in whatever country you wish to target.

Shah says one thing to keep in mind is that in some cultures, personal and business networking is strictly separate. Therefore, it might be advisable to exclude your beach photos from profiles that you plan to use for international business networking.

7. Meet Online Contacts in Person Whenever Possible

It’s great to have online contacts, but offline relationships are often easier to maintain. If you happen to be in the area of an online contact, ask to meet them in person.

“You actually try to physically meet the people who you met online … which then makes them much stronger connections in your general network …” Reugger says.

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