Building up a business network isn’t easy, but it is essential if you intend to succeed anywhere in the world of business. This is especially true of small businesses without the track records of larger, more established organizations. Personal connections can mean all the difference between profitability and bankruptcy.

Mashable, 16th June 2010

In a previous article, I wrote about ways to reignite your existing network online. In this post, I want to focus on how to use the web to make actual, lasting connections that will help you achieve your goals.

Many businesspeople don’t think of the web as a place to make connections, but rather to communicate with them. This isn’t true anymore, and in fact social media tools can be more effective than in-person meetings, especially when you’re trying to build an international network.

1. Consistently engage people you want to add to your network. If you want to get on somebody’s radar, start @replying to them on Twitter, comment on their Facebook posts, or create discussions around their work on your blog. If you’ve met them before, it’s fine to send a Facebook or LinkedIn request, although everyone has different rules for accepting or rejecting friend requests.

2. Don’t become a pest. There is a fine line between communication and harassment, and once you cross that line, there’s no going back. Don’t bombard your network with an overflow of social media messages. Use your best judgment.

3. Join online communities in your industry. There are a ton of mailing lists, message boards, and social networks dedicated to small business or your chosen field. You just have to find them. For example, many entrepreneurs regularly visit and contribute to Hacker News, a community for hackers, founders, and entrepreneurs. Find niche communities like it that focus on your field of business and get connected.

To get started, here are a few tips for connecting with other entrepreneurs via social media.

4. Don’t limit your online networking to one person or one network. There are a lot of great people to engage, but if you ignore them because you only want to use one network, then you miss out on a lot of potential engagement and potential contacts. Keep an open mind and try out new tools and new networks.

5. Bring it offline… eventually. Online communication is great, but when you have the opportunity, nothing really beats a one-on-one conversation over coffee. If you’ve been consistent in engaging your network online, then you won’t run out of things to talk about in person. Once again, don’t rush an in-person meeting. In most cases, you’ll know when the right time is to take it offline.

Consistent and meaningful contact is key to building a strong network. Be an active member in your network and keep them engaged. The network you build online will deliver huge returns throughout your career, so put in your full effort.