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using social networking to help you

Small businesses are banding together to create online communities to raise their profile and share information.

Troy BumperOne example is Barista Exchange, a network I wrote about uniting the specialty-coffee industry with 3,000 members. (What is the best coffee-bar music, by the way?) Here Barista Exchange members discuss how the site has affected their business.

Though many businesses desire to create vibrant, viral communities online, few pull it off. Here are some tips for making social networking work:

1) Choose the right format. A social network can’t be successful unless it’s easy and fun to use. This might include the ability for members to easily post videos, photos and questions and create attractive profiles. Everyone has heard about Facebook and MySpace. But these aren’t necessarily the most flexible, user-friendly services for forming your own online group.

Ning – the one used by Barista Exchange –offers many features for creating advanced social networks, including many widgets and the ability for members to create subgroups. Others to check out include CrowdVine and KickApps.

2) Promote your network. Don’t assume you can build it and they will come. Social-network creators often must work exceptionally hard to drive membership. Some of the most successful offer incentives for joining, buy advertising and send emails to friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Also promote the network on email signatures and in other places where people might see it.

3) Update often. The best social networks offer engaging content that’s refreshed often, along with numerous features. Early on, the network’s creator will likely have to spend a lot of time populating the site with content and coming up with interesting tools and features that will appeal to members.

4) Make them want to come back. The success of a social network is often measured by repeat users. Again, not easy. Offering tools like RSS feeds and email newletters that inform members about new content can help. Also encouraging them to start their own discussions, make “friends” or form subgroups will boost the odds they’ll interact and return.

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