For most businesses, effective networking has always been an essential component to success. Today, however, the landscape of business networking has changed dramatically. No longer does business networking exclusively involve standing in a crowded room of people, meeting and greeting with total strangers, and exchanging numerous business cards. While such traditional networking is still valid and effective, e-networking on business social networking sites can be just as valuable.

Regardless of what anyone thinks about social networking sites, the fact is that they are here to stay. Sure, they'll evolve over the years and may look different than they do today, but ultimately they'll still exist. And while purely "social" social networking sites can have a business aspect to them, it's important for business owners to have a strong presence on the tried-and-true business networking sites (example: LinkedIn).

Why? Because your prospects, customers, colleagues and others look to business networking sites for evidence of your character. For example, when a prospect is thinking about doing business with you, he or she will likely do a social- media search for you. Never before did all individuals have the ability to research anyone or any company they wanted. In the past, background checks were expensive and time-consuming; these days a few mouse clicks and keystrokes can pull up a goldmine of information. That's why you and your company need to have a presence on business networking sites—and you need to be using these e-networking sites effectively.

The following suggestions will help you become a savvy e-networker with a positive online presence.

1.Don't be a contact collector; be a contact cultivator.

The goal of any networking endeavor is to build relationships, not just to collect business cards. E-networking is no different. If you've been on any business networking sites, you've likely seen people with 500 connections or more. At first you may think, "Wow, that person sure knows a lot of people." But does he or she really know those connections? Or is this person just collecting contacts?

Rather than accepting and sending invitations to anyone, be mindful of whom you connect with. When you do make a connection with someone, look over his or her profile and then add a personal note to the person where you indicate a shared interest, club or affiliation. For example, you could respond to someone by writing, "I see you attended Northwestern University (are a member of the Miami Business Association, have a pet beagle, etc.). I have a similar interest in that I also (attended Northwestern, am a member of the Tulsa Business Association, have a dog named Snoopy). Find a shared interest to build upon that will make you stand out and open the lines for further communication later.

2. Have a clear purpose.

Many people hope to get business from being on social media sites. While you can get business from your online activities, this should not be your ultimate purpose. Your purpose should be to make people aware of who you are by sharing your expertise.

Any business networking site is a place for you to give, not just to get. To get business from your e-networking activities, you have to contribute meaningful content. You can find many groups to belong to that have strong conversations going. If you post something smart and useful in the discussion forum, chances are someone will ask to connect with you. Now you have more people to share your message with.

Other examples of good content include asking thought-provoking questions, posting a motivational quote or sharing a business tip. No matter what you post, if you get a reply, acknowledge the person for their feedback or contribution. You can't take people for granted in the brick-and-mortar world, and you can't take them for granted in the virtual world, either. Everyone who reacts to your content is a potential relationship and needs to be treated as such.

When you're replying to a question someone else poses, try to answer in the early part of the conversation rather than after a hundred others have replied. You want your answer to be in that first page of results. That way anyone who replies after you will see your photo and business information. Pay close attention to what the question is and don't answer capriciously. Remember that your reply is posted forever.

3. Add some personal flair to your profile.

This is business—but it's okay to give your profile some personal flair. After all, no one is all business all the time. Chances are you have some interesting hobbies or other areas of your life that people will find intriguing. For example, maybe you collect antique cars, breed prize-winning poodles, tend a vineyard in your backyard, or have the city's largest Yo-Yo collection. These are interesting tidbits about yourself that you can weave into your profile to make yourself appear more real.

Additionally, look at the tools and widgets the business networking sites make available to you and use them. You can do such things as post your reading list, link your blog, upload your Twitter feed, and many others. People can get to know you through these additional applications, and they are user-friendly and easy to integrate into your business networking persona.

We are right now in the midst of a gigantic social media experiment. Those who embrace business e-networking are the pioneers who will shape how this new mode of communication is implemented and evolves in the future. As you move forward, however, remember that your involvement with business networking sites should be just one aspect of your business building efforts, and cannot replace the other proven approaches for acquiring clients and business partners. Using today's business e-networking tools effectively is one more way to connect with others so you can build your business and boost your bottom line.

JEAN KELLEY is president and founder of
Jean Kelley Leadership Consulting, helping corporate leaders
all over the world to achieve their highest potential.
She is the author of
Dear Jean: What They Don't Teach
You at the Water Cooler and Get a Job; Keep a Job Handbook.