For many businesses, especially professional services, networking is an essential part of a marketing program. We would like to offer some suggestions here to best utilize networking to enhance your marketing.
Some networking takes place at events organized for that purpose; perhaps a luncheon or after work gathering setup with the intention that those attending will meet new contacts and look for how they can assist or support one another. They are generally open to pretty much anyone who wants to attend or has been invited by someone in the network. When attending this type of event, have a strategy before you arrive.
Here are some possible strategies for open networking events:
- Understand that others are there because networking is important to expanding their business. They are hoping that you might be a prospect or alliance or referral source for them. Be open and gracious and genuinely interested in how you can assist or support them.
- Are there specific types of businesses or industries you want as either clients or alliances? A hairdresser might want to meet anyone in the fashion or beauty business. A financial advisor might want to meet CPA’s. An employment service might want contacts who own businesses with 20 or more employees. Locate these key contacts, get a business card and ask if you may call to schedule a time to get better acquainted.
- Do you have a product or service that “everyone” needs like office supplies, natural home cleaning products, a restaurant, massages? The strategy here might be just to make friendly introductions to as many people as possible, gather lots of business cards, then add the names to a mailing list, Facebook, etc. so they begin seeing promotion for your product or service.
- Best to avoid “selling” at the event. Too many qualifying questions aimed at someone whose primary interest is to promote their business could cause them to back away rather than increase their interest.
The other major version of networking is through groups and associations that meet on a regular basis for that specific purpose. Here there is more of an opportunity to develop real relationships with a variety of contacts; some you will become a client of, some will become clients of yours. Of course, all of the strategies for open networks apply. Here are some additional suggestions:
- Select one or at the most two of this type of networking group to join. If you are a serial networker, going from meeting to meeting, you won’t have time for the other suggestions.
- Groups have different tones. Some are more social, some are more conservative. Find one where you feel really comfortable and that your natural personality will fit in. It may take visiting several before you find the right one for you.
- Really get to know the other members. Start with the officers and committee leaders as they have probably been around the longest and will give you the truest picture of the group. Set a goal, maybe one per week, and schedule a breakfast, lunch, coffee meeting. Go to their place of business if that is appropriate. Thoroughly look over their website, Facebook entry, etc. This is where you find out how you can mutually assist and support one another.
- Get involved. Can’t stress this one enough. By contributing to the group you are also contributing to all the members. Some people want to stick with their strengths (the marketing consultant producing the newsletter) but this can also be an opportunity for you to get out of your usual routine. If you spend most of the day writing on your computer, volunteer for a position where you will be calling and making personal contact.
- Participate in all of the activities. Many such groups have civic or community projects, participate in that. Attend the meetings plus any happy hour, workshop or other events sponsored by the group.
- The bottom line here is that the more you put into the organization, the more you will get out of it. Take some responsibility for its success and the success of its individual members and that will come flowing back to you. This takes time. You should commit no less than 6 months of very active participations before you decide that a group is not valuable to you.
Handled with a little more finesse are groups and associations with some other purpose where networking can occur. These would include charities, community service projects, and even churches. Certainly, “informal communication with others for mutual assistance or support” can take place within these groups. But since that is not their primary purpose the guidelines for networking change a little.
- Your primary reason for participating with these groups needs to be strictly the purpose of the group. If you are a Red Cross volunteer, make sure it is because you want to help people in the time of disaster. If you join Habitat for Humanity, make sure you want to help people own a home. If you join the ABC Church, it should be for the religious and spiritual purpose. You may have observed someone in a group with another agenda. Those people usual are pretty transparent and quickly become unpopular. It is okay to join such groups (maybe not church) as part of a marketing plan, just double check your personal motivation and make certain you are passionate about the purpose.
- First priority here is to roll up your sleeves and pitch in and help. Your enthusiasm and work ethic will make you noticed. Treat the project with the same level of professionalism you would a business situation. Return calls and respond to emails promptly. Keep your word and do what you said you would do. Take a leadership position if your time allows and that is needed. All the basics.
- When someone asks “what business are you in”, answer their question simply. Be careful about launching into an elevator speech. A simple, “I own an auto repair shop” will do. No need for “I help families by keeping their vehicles safe and reliable.”
- The networking comes in when you use the contacts you make. After you have established that you are there to forward the purpose of the group, start asking individual members for a chance to get to know them better with a breakfast, lunch, or coffee meeting. At that time, you can find out more about their business, find out if they might be a prospect for you, or just generally how you can assist or support them and you are once again networking.
Elevator speeches: Yes, everybody needs one. This is the brief statement that communicates very concisely what product or service you offer. Many networking events include a time to go around the room and introduce yourself. Some groups expect a polished and clever elevator speech. We will write a future article on introductions but for now you can just google “elevator speech”. There are lots of websites with good suggestions on writing one. Your elevator speech needs to be consistent with the rest of your marketing with a consistent message and a consistent tone of playful versus serious, etc.
In fact, many elevator speeches have become too polished and too clever for our personal taste. They are so focused on how they benefit others, they leave out the fundamental of what they do. “I help people increase their net income beyond their wildest dreams.” Okay, do you give investment advice? Do you recruit people for new higher paying jobs? Do you sell franchise businesses? I am interested in a little about what the product or service is so I’m not left with a mystery. Take note of the self-introductions others do and how they are received so that you will learn the standards for this group.
Finally, it is okay to network just for the sake of networking. If you are the kind of person who likes lots of interaction with others or if you feel like you need to get out of your shell every now and then, networking may do the trick. Or, if you get lots of personal pleasure from assisting and supporting others even with no intention to get that returned, you will enjoy networking.
There you have the nuts and bolts of networking. Determine if networking needs to be a part of your marketing program. Plan how you will best utilize networking. Then get on the internet or start asking around and find your place in the network of business people informally communicating with others for mutual assistance or support.