Networking: It's a mistake to overlook this marketing tool!
What makes networking the best tool for growing a small business?
--October 1st, 2006
It's been said, "It's not about what you know, but who you know." This phrase applies especially to those who want to master the art of brown-nosing as they climb up the corporate ladder in a large, multi-billion dollar company.
But this article isn't for those people. This article is for the entrepreneurs and small business owners out there who are wondering:
- "How can I get the word out about my company?"
- "Where can I get more leads and sales?"
- "Where can I meet other like-minded business owners and employees to learn and exchange ideas?"
There are many ways to market a business. The obvious one is direct marketing such as newspaper ads, flyers, brochures, TV commercials, and radio spots. All of these are great when done correctly. But first, you have to decide which medium is right for you, and then you have to design or pay someone to develop your message. Once that's done, you sit and wait for a response. Direct marketing works, but it has to be done correctly to get a good return on investment. You probably won't get it right on the first try and fine-tuning your strategy is the only way to go about get profitable results.
Networking as a Marketing Tool
There is another way to market your business with a lot of extra benefits that you just can't get with direct marketing. It's called Networking. Most small business owners and new business owners either don't do it, or don't do it enough. Those who are doing it know that it works. There are many ways to network and this article will go into detail on many of them. And no, we're not talking about "networking" with the stranger at the gas station and telling him all about your business.
My business, a graphic and web design studio, was only a few months old when I realized it was time to start meeting new leads face to face. Yes, I was initially keeping busy as I exhausted the "friends, family and their referrals" resource, but I knew that my business needed something else if I was going to be in it for the long haul. I started with one networking event which I dreaded going to because I wasn't good at meeting new people. I'm great around people when I know them, but I had a hard time talking to complete strangers, especially business professionals.
Getting Started in Networking
The first event was a Chamber of Commerce lunch. From then on, my desire to meet other business owners hit the ceiling. I was timid at first, but you just have to throw yourself in with the sharks, so to speak. I quickly got over my reluctance of talking to new people, as well as my fear of public speaking. If you love talking to new people, than you can just skip the whole "getting used to it" step. Some small business owners are very good at running their business, but contact with other people may not be their strong point. That is why you either have to force yourself to network, or have another, more gregarious person in the business do it for you.
Networking is great because there are a lot of things happening at once. You are meeting driven people like yourself. You are talking about your business and learning about other small businesses. You are exchanging ideas that will benefit everybody in the group. Eventually, once people know and trust you, you will start getting leads and sales.
You have to put in the work and time to get results from networking. Networking is about developing relationships and that doesn't always happen on the first try. There is a lot of commerce going on in our capitalistic society, so when you are producing a high ticket item like a custom website, home remodeling or financial services, people will be much more inclined to buy from you if they trust you. The same principal applies to pretty much anything you are selling. Once people learn that you are a legitimate business owner, then they will have no problem buying from you or referring someone who will.
OK, enough about networking in theory. Let's explore some groups, organizations, and other ways to actually network.
Open Networking Groups
Chamber of Commerce - Almost every city has one. Some are invaluable while others can be a complete bummer. It really depends on where you are and who is running the organization. Our local chamber of commerce has been great for kick starting my networking bug. Although I met other people in my industry that may be competition, I have actually formed alliances and a referral system for exchanging business with them. In addition, you're meeting a ton of people in other industries that you can learn from. There are some common factors that apply to all businesses, so its beneficial for you to learn how other people are running their business so you can borrow or innovate upon their ideas.
Just search Google for "Your city: Chamber of Commerce"
Small Business Alliances - I know my town has one and it's incredibly beneficial because they focus on the growth side of running a business. They help with all the questions a small business owner could have like: What do I need to know about my lease? Do I want a 401K plan for employees? Who can help me find a good insurance? Anything in regards to the growing pains of a small business! Try this site and see if there's a local chapter, AMIBA Keep in mind, there are a bunch of other small business alliances that don't have to do with American Independent Business Alliance. Our SBA is actually a local one that is not associated with the AMIBA.
Meetup.com - Yes, there's actually a site out there that networks people and brings them together in real life. Its very promising if you can find a good group.. The "Meet-ups" are usually free, and if they cost money then it is usually going to pay for food, drinks, and the space.
Meetup.com has every kind of group imaginable, from single mother meet-ups to Dungeons & Dragons meet-ups. If you look hard enough, you'll find the golden nuggets that relate directly to small businesses, entrepreneurs, or even your industry. The good thing about Meetup.com is that you can start your own group if they don't have what you're looking for!
Rotary Clubs - We are not part of a Rotary club yet, but it is a well established business networking organization that helps out the community. Being part of a Rotary can add extra credibility to your business. From their site: "Rotary is the world's oldest service club organization. It's made up of more than 32,000 Rotary clubs in nearly 170 countries. The members of these autonomous clubs are called Rotarians, and they form a global network of 1.2 million business and professional leaders, all volunteering their time and talents to serve their communities and the world. Individual Rotary clubs, in turn, belong to the global association Rotary International" Try Rotary.org
Leads Groups - These groups have one goal in mind: networking. Some are national and others only have one chapter. Some are open and others are closed. You have to look hard to find these groups, but they can be some of the best resources out there.
Search Google for "Leads Groups: Your City"
LeTip - This is a networking group that only allows one company from each industry, hence the closed group title. The exclusivity of closed groups is great if you can get in with a good group that has every intention of getting bigger. That means you will have all of the members acting as your salespeople, which is far more cost-effective than hiring a sales team of 20+ individuals.
This group has a greater sense of trust among the members than say a "Chamber of Commerce," because you are with them every week and you get to know each member and their business individually. There are a ton of chapters throughout the US so check it out at LeTip.com
BNI - Very similar to LeTip. Only one company per industry allowed. Both BNI and LeTip have training
programs that help you learn how to market yourself to other people quickly and effectively. The one catch is that
closed groups usually do not let you be a part of other closed groups, so you have to pick one you like and stick with it.
Loyalty is important. If you have more than one person in your company, divide yourselves among the different closed groups. Visit BNI.com for more information.
Networking is great for small business growth
I'm sure I missed a lot of groups in the list because I don't know what they all are. Some heavy searching on the internet or communication with other business owners can yield some great results for your area.
We're fairly new to the networking game. I can't imagine what it will be like a year or two down the road but I promise you it will be exciting. There is no other way to grow a business like small business networking because you're going to be face to face with like-minded people. They are either going to be your clients, allies, or in some cases both.
One thing is for sure though: if you stick with these like-minded individuals in the groups and organizations mentioned above, your business will grow faster than you could have imagined. If you're sick of spending money on direct marketing or if you just sit around on your butt wondering why your business is not growing, get out there and meet new people. The worst case scenario is that you'll make a friend and get a free meal.
Bartek Franek is the Creative Director at Shycon Design. If you have any feedback about this article, you can E-mail him here.