6 Networking Platforms for Local Merchants

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Connected Modern WorldMore than 23 million small businesses dot the American landscape, and yet for many of these local merchants, business ownership is a lonely endeavor, with few places to turn for community support and “been there, done that” advice.

In an effort to provide small business owners with a place to form bonds and the types of relationships that lead to cross-promotions and improved local sales, hyperlocal vendors are developing new platforms where independent entrepreneurs can connect online. What Nextdoor has done for neighbors, and Classmates.com has done for alumni groups, these networks are looking to do for the SMB community.

Here are six examples of social networking platforms aimed at the local merchant market.

1. Alignable: Form partnerships with other local business owners.
A local business social network, Alignable provides its users with ways to “connect locally,” “share socially,” and “succeed together.” Through the platform, business owners are encouraged to partner up and market to each other’s subscriber lists and social media followers. (For example: Two business owners might agree to promote each other’s stores to their Facebook and Twitter followers.) Users can message other business owners in their own communities for general advice or with specific cross-selling opportunities. They can also use Alignable to raise general awareness about other local businesses in their towns. Alignable is free for business owners.

2. Townsquared: Tap into the issues that impact local businesses.
A hyperlocal network that aims to empower local businesses, Townsquared is private and available only to merchants whose identities have been verified. Once business owners have joined the network, they can access private local business directories, receive community security alerts, develop partnerships with neighboring business owners, promote events, and buy, sell, and borrow all different types of goods. The network stands out in its ability to notify users of urgent threats, like shoplifters who are targeting retailers in a particular neighborhood. It also provides a way for merchants to find answers to common problems and share personal advice with others in the same situations. Townsquared is free.

3. Powerlinx: Form partnerships and strategies business alliances.
Powerlinx enables businesses to find suppliers, enter new markets, raise capital, and even search for buyers when the time is right. Using “unique business intelligence tools,” Powerlinx helps users connect with other businesses based on the whatever it is they’re hoping to achieve. Essentially, a business states its goals — for example, finding a new supplier — and Powerlinx uses an algorithm to find other firms within its database that match the search. Users can then refine those matches based on a number of factors, and Powerlinx facilitates the personal introduction. Powerlinx works on a subscription basis, with plans ranging from free (for browsing) to $990 per month.

4. LinkedIn: Build a local industry network.
LinkedIn is working to capture a larger share of the small business community, with networking tools aimed at local merchants. In addition to its online platform, where business owners can join local networking groups and follow established companies for marketing ideas, LinkedIn also hosts live events for SMBs. LinkedIn Live events include panel discussions for business owners, focusing on the issues impacting specific regions. SMBs can also use LinkedIn to keep tabs on what their competitors are up to and to solicit answers to questions from peers in their communities or verticals. LinkedIn is free for users.

5. Perch: Get business recommendations based on aggregated data.
Perch is a marketplace platform that provides SMBs with a way to monitor their competitors’ social media activity, along with other digital promotions and reviews. Businesses can quickly discover when competitors are having massive sales or popular promotions, allowing them to combat the effects with real-time discounts and online postings. Importantly, Perch also offers recommendations to businesses based on the aggregated data it collects. These recommendations include things like telling a business owner when to post a new Facebook status update or when he or she should start responding to reviews on Yelp. Perch can also recommend third-party marketing products based on the data it gathers. Perch is free for users.

6. MerchantCircle: Interact with millions of experienced merchants.
Although most people think of MerchantCircle as a consumer-focused marketing platform aimed exclusively at customer acquisition, the company also offers networking opportunities for local business owners who are interested in learning from their peers. MerchantCircle boasts a roster of more than 1.7 million merchants, and provides networking tools that allow users to interact and chat with one another through the platform. Merchants can narrow down the users they’re interested in chatting with by location or vertical, gaining insights from the experience of others. MerchantCircle offers free tools for business owners.

Know of other networking platforms for business owners? Leave a description in the comments.

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.