As we all know, marketing encompasses many different activities, such as public relations, social media, advertising, inbound marketing, search engine marketing. content marketing, etc. One activity that businesses might not consider part of their marketing program is networking. All businesses should do some type of networking to maintain visibility in the market and engage more directly with their target customers. If you are a start-up, small business or solo entrepreneur, networking absolutely needs to be a significant part of your marketing game plan.
Why Conduct Networking?
Networking is really the only activity that gives you the opportunity to engage with people directly, particularly face-to-face and one-to-one. It can be done online via social networks such as LinkedIn, but is most effective in live, in-person business networking meetings. Unlike events such as trade shows, the focus is on building connections and relationships that could lead to business instead of strictly on generating sales. Building a network helps with creating word-of-mouth, not only about your products or services but about who you are — your character, professionalism and what it’s like to do business with you.
As your network grows, you can become a conduit or connection for other people looking for referrals, specific services or an introduction to another professional. Networking becomes an opportunity to not only help your business but to help others. Reciprocating or exchanging referrals, making and creating connections and serving as a testimonial for another professional or business is what really turns the wheels of commerce.
Groups to Consider for Networking
Every professional and business owner should be a member of one or more business networking or professional groups that conduct regular meetings primarily for networking. In addition to networking opportunities, many of these groups offer professional development events and an environment for making social connections as well.
The following are some groups to consider for networking:
Chamber of Commerce – Every city or region has a Chamber of Commerce. If you are looking to get or do business in your area, it pays to join your local Chamber. Most Chambers offer several networking opportunities each month, with some of the meetings focused on specific professionals or businesses (e.g. women business owners, young professionals, start-ups and large employers). They also host annual events such as business expos where you can exhibit your products or services. The membership fee is based on how many employees you have, therefore a solo practitioner or small, 10-person business would pay the lower end of the fee scale.
BNI (Business Network International) – Like the Chamber of Commerce, BNI has a chapter in every town or region. Meetings are held weekly and conducted for 90 minutes, typically starting as early as 7:00 a.m. The meetings are also structured with an agenda and allow each member the opportunity to do a 60 second “commercial” on their business. Only one person per profession can join a chapter, so you would need to locate a chapter that does not have your profession’s “seat” filled. Members also get the opportunity to do a 10-minute feature presentation to the group about 2-3 times each year. BNI’s philosophy is “Givers Gain,” encouraging members to focus on giving referrals as much as getting them. Members typically also meet one another outside the regular meetings to conduct one-to-one get-togethers and foster their BNI connections.
Your Industry Professional Association – Most industries or professions have an association of professionals in the field. For example, public relations specialists like myself have the Public Relations Society of America, which has a local chapter in Boston. Many professional associations have a national base with chapters in major cities. You may wonder why you would want to network with a group of people who do the same thing you do (essentially competitors), but your industry’s professional association would have people with whom you can collaborate on projects, share business development ideas, and exchange referrals for business that are more suited to one another’s areas of specialization in the field.
Regional and Niche Networking Groups – If you look around, you’ll find smaller, more regionally-based groups geared to specific types of professionals, such as women business owners, entrepreneurs or corporate executives. These groups present opportunities for connecting with similar or like-minded professionals in a variety of other fields and usually in more intimate settings.
Here are some tips for making sure you are networking effectively:
• Always bring plenty of business cards to the meetings.
• Wear business attire or “business casual” if appropriate.
• Give a firm hand shake to people you meet, not a limp one.
• When starting a conversation with someone, avoid launching into a sales pitch. Show interest in the other person and ask about their business and what they are working on.
• Introduce yourself to people you might collaborate with or offering services you might use, not just people you could get business from.
• If you want to introduce yourself to people who might need your products or services, make the conversation about them and their business — ask what they are trying to do with their business and how you can help them. You could mention that you are offering a special or discount.
• Ask how you can help someone before asking them for help or referrals for your business.