In this the age of the selfie, social networks and online chats, meeting people in person still seems to be the only way to build deep, lasting relationships. When it comes to business networking, nothing can replace personal interaction. Not even phone calls or Skype.
Networking for your business relies on people communicating with each other. You need consider every option to grow your customer base.
Benefits of business networking for small businesses
In the U.S., there’s no shortage of organizations that support small business networking. Local business networking events, business social events, trade shows and association or club meetings are events that offer networking opportunities.
You can also get actively involved in chambers of commerce in your area, your local Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and service organizations like Rotary Club, Kiwanis and Optimists. Active participation could include joining committees and volunteering on projects. Service and charitable organizations attract business and community leaders. By working alongside those individuals and developing relationships with them, opportunities for business and referrals are bound to come up eventually.
Join LinkedIn and use it for business networking
LinkedIn is the largest online professional network. is purpose-built for business networking, and you can easily grow your interconnected web of connections to 500, or 1,000 contacts. People are on LinkedIn to network, find jobs and promote their business, find and research potential customers.
Search for new contacts and send personalized messages to them when you subscribe to premium services. LinkedIn gives you access to key business contacts worldwide. Your business page on the site also promotes you and improves your SEO results. You can post articles and gain followers. People with thousands of contacts use LinkedIn for marketing and sales. Broadcast information to your network, such as product launches or awards or trade show presence to talk about your business and create awareness. You can use Twitter and Facebook in the same way or manage all your social media posts with a tool like Hootsuite.
Traditional business networking: the personal touch
Traditional business networking is when you’re physically present. It’s the “Bricks and mortar” approach; some would say the original “social networking”. If you attend a chamber of commerce event or an awards gala, you can network for your business locally. You can expect to make some new contacts, and then follow up and possibly get some leads.
Structured business networking groups, such as Business Network International (BNI), have a different purpose. BNI is a worldwide business networking and referral organization with 225,000 members in 76 countries. BNI chapters meet face to face weekly and build mutually beneficial relationships, share information about their businesses and refer clients to each other.
Business networking benefits
Business networking offers many benefits. whether you participate in individual events or commit to a specific group that meets regularly:
- Promote yourself and your brand — attend events and meetings to promote your value to other businesspeople and professionals in a more relaxed, social setting. Does your community know about you and your business? The more events you attend, the more people you meet, the more exposure your business gets.
- New contacts and referral partners — At business networking events, you’ll meet existing and potential clients, referral partners and industry peers. Attend different events to see what works for you. If you’re business is new, this will give you an idea of what works for you.
- Get advice for challenges you face — Networking gives you opportunities to share and discuss common challenges with other business owners who’ve had to solve similar problems before. People enjoy giving advice or referring you to professionals they trust. Just work it into the conversation. On the flip side, use your own unique knowledge and experience to help someone out.
- Build a network of support — You’re not alone. Leverage your network. Business networking social events let you relax and socialize with like-minded people. The friends you make can bring fresh perspectives to business issues.
How can I network more effectively?
If you decide to join BNI or attend networking events either locally or elsewhere, here are some basic tips:
- Always be active. More activity leads to more contacts, referrals and leads. It takes constant effort and time. If you think networking skills aren’t in your DNA, check out these Networking tips for people who hate to network. Are you doing enough to grow your business? Networking doesn’t have to be awkward or obnoxious. But keep your networking hat on when you run into people and make mental notes to follow up.
- Use meals as business meetings. To save precious time, meet contacts, prospects and clients for breakfast or lunch. If it makes sense, go somewhere quiet or spacious so you can hear the other person.
- Pick the right events — Events you can attend without membership include chamber of commerce breakfasts and networking events, technology networking events, conferences, trade shows, association activities, seminars, religious and political groups, presentations and various clubs. Volunteering and fundraising activities with other business leaders is another avenue.
- Focus on relevant contacts — Some business contacts sound promising but have limited potential. Focus on people who have a solid network of potential customers. If you’re looking for high net worth clients for your financial services practice, focus on people who work for them: accountants, tax specialists and insurance advisors. They have the clients you want, and your clients may need their services. It’s a win-win scenario.
- Ask customers for referrals — Happy customers and suppliers can give you leads or even make the first call for you. Get in the habit of asking your top customers for referrals and introductions. They might think you’re outstanding, but never thought to tell anyone.
- Business networking groups. Some business networks are very professional, others cater to micro businesses, part-time moms or women entrepreneurs. Most groups let you try before you buy. Also, joining a group like BNI is a significant commitment. It’s not for everyone.
- Elevator pitch: wait for the right moment — Be genuine and authentic, and don’t force feed your elevator pitch, make it natural. Wait for the right moment, ask what they do first and when you’re asked what you do, deliver your message in 30 seconds. You could use a basic formula reported by Alejandro Cremades in his Forbes article: “We solve [problem] by providing [advantage], to help [target] accomplish [target’s goal]”.
- Give first, then ask — You need a give and take mindset for business networking. The “good karma” thing is real. Businesspeople you meet can help you or even mentor you. If you’re new to an industry, business networking events are great places to get advice and share information.
- Reciprocate — If a top business leader helps you out, return the favor. They may not need your advice, but maybe you can support the charity they sponsor, or help them with technological challenges if you’re a bit of a geek. Showing your appreciation should strengthen the bond and help ensure the benefits continue.
- Listen more, talk less — Networking is all about relationships. And good listeners tend to create positive impressions. If you show an interest in other people’s businesses and develop a personal relationship, you’re much more likely to get leads and well-qualified referrals.
- Work the room — Walk around and talk to several people. Swap cards, and move around. Follow up the next day. Meeting someone in person is a powerful thing. They’re much more likely to return your phone call because they know who you are.
- The day after, don‘t forget to follow up — After the meeting, set the promising contacts aside for follow up, scan the business cards and make notes. Send a thank you email and add something they might find interesting, like an article link. Be patient. Business owners can be slow to respond.
Business networking is about building mutually beneficial relationships. But it takes time and effort. The more people you connect with, the more likely you are to find customers through their contacts and networks.
How can social networking help your business?
Social networks and online marketing have revolutionized the way businesses sell products and services. They are critical for both local and global businesses. Marketing and networking rely heavily on Facebook, Google, and visual platforms like Instagram and Pinterest for branding and even e-commerce.
Here are some key benefits of social media to businesses:
- Showcase your business and your brand, and drive traffic to your website. If you sell online, social media helps you drive traffic beyond organic search.
- Your social media pages boost your search engine ranking and support your other online and in-person business networking efforts. They also give your business a human quality.
- It can help you generate leads. Online sales and websites are migrating to social media and mobile devices. If your business has a website and uses it for sales and lead generation, you need to be on social media.
- Your business can be more responsive to customers and prospects. If people have complaints, they’ll be shared publicly, so you’ll need to respond quickly.
- Target customers precisely using LinkedIn ads for B2B channels and Facebook for B2C.
- Build positive relationships with prospects and contacts using private messages. Use social media to expand on business networking opportunities.
- Everything you post is broadcast to your followers immediately. Unlike snail mail or email, your contacts and prospects will be aware of anything you publish on social media. That’s a good thing!
- It’s all about sharing. How do products and posts go viral? People share or retweet on social media platforms. The impact on your business can be huge. When your satisfied clients share positive experiences about your business with the rest of the world, it’s marketing gold.
Business networking is a key ingredient for small business success. It’s a bit of a mindset, and you have to work at it all the time. But whether it’s in person or online, local or global, your business has a human face: yours!