Cultivating relationships has always played a critical role in business success. It’s not a surprise that people with extended networks tend to go further faster in their careers. Two aspects create winning support systems: meeting people who are willing to offer their help and friendship and maintaining those associations.

However, as our lives grow more complex, attending networking or professional organization events becomes more of a challenge to schedule. Even meeting colleagues across town for a coffee chat is often difficult. Then comes the time investment to nurture fledgling friendships. As the world spins smaller, what happens when your network extends not just to the next city or state, but across an ocean? To put it simply, how do you meet people and then stay in touch?

The answers can be found in what might be perceived at first glance to be cold and impersonal the World Wide Web. The Internet has morphed into an important catalyst for developing and sustaining digital relationships. Through social media tools such as blogs, social networking, and online boards people are changing how they interact with each other. Small business owners to corporate CEOs are exploring these easy to use web-based technologies to expand and keep up their global networks.

Interestingly, women use social networks differently than men. A recent study by Rapleaf, a San Francisco consulting firm, indicates women appear to spend more time on social networks building and nurturing relationships while men spend their time acquiring relationships. According to Rapleaf, the net result is the about the same number of people in both circles.

Developing digital relationships are not much different from the relationships you might make at a Chamber of Commerce event. At the core they are comprised of similar values: mutual need, support, trust and respect. Digital relationships hold a few extra benefits that may not be immediately obvious:

1. If you are shy meeting people at off-line events, the “fourth wall” of the Internet might make it easier for you to participate in conversations. People appreciate comments on their blogs, profile walls and Twitter @responses that add value. Your thoughts can be 140 characters a la Twitter, a few paragraphs on your own blog post or short video posted on your Facebook page and YouTube.

2. Dropping into a social network site like Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook can be done at your convenience whether at 5 a.m. or 5 p.m. or midnight. You can engage at your computer or on your mobile phone, extending the flexibility even further. You determine how long you stay – a few minutes or a few hours.

3. Similar to building your off-line network, social media provides opportunities to “meet” friends of friends.

A few tips to help you jump-start building your digital relationship network:

1. Explore a few social networks. When you build your profile, to prevent spam, consider using a different e-mail address from your business or personal e-mail. The following Big Three networks have become the core platforms for many business professionals.

LinkedIn is focused on business networking, making it an ideal first step into social media.

Twitter allows only 140 characters per message or “tweet.” Organizations are using Twitter for customer service support, public relations conferences and rapid response answers to questions.

Facebook offers the option to create personal pages and group pages for brand “fans.”

2. Don’t feel obligated to follow/friend everyone who knocks on your virtual door. Sometimes less is more. Take time to read profiles to help you determine who you want to be a part of your community.

3. Participate in discussions in the same way as you would in the off-line world. Be yourself. Let your personality come through in your words, on videos or in a podcast interview.

4. Adding value to the conversation will reward you faster and better than a continuous stream of promotion about your products or company.

The results: you’ll develop a global network that you can tap into for resources, information, support, advice in which you can control where and when you meet-up. Don’t be surprised if the connections you make turn into real friendships that lead to off-line meetings!

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