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As a business person, you know that in order to survive, you need revenue; in order to get revenue, you need customers; and in order to have customers purchase your product or service, you have to first reach them through your marketing efforts. There are many strategies you can use for marketing (ranging from cold calling to direct mail); many businesses find that networking is an important component of their overall marketing plan.
The aim of networking is to build a network of people who will help facilitate meeting new clients, through referring you or collaborating with you on projects. In return, it is expected that you will also help them meet new clients. There are several reasons why this is a useful strategy:
- People often choose where to do business based on the recommendations of their friends, family, and trusted business associates.
- A phone call or email message to a potential client is much more compelling if you can make a personal connection (such as "Jane Smith suggested I call").
- You cannot meet every potential customer for your business in person -- there's simply not enough time in the day. However, when you instead spend the time to make a good networking connection, it can result in many clients.
- When you refer your clients to businesses in your network, you are helping your clients (who get the products and services they need) and the businesses you refer them to (who get new customers), and strengthening your own relationship with your clients and network.
You can go about building your network in many ways. For instance, you could ask your past customers for referrals, and make sure your friends and family know all about your business. These are good ideas; but in addition, many business owners also find it beneficial to make connections to other business owners, for mutual referrals and partnerships, through attending business networking meetings. Here are a couple of tips for getting the most out of business networking meetings:
- Figure out what type of people you want to meet before you go, and plan to talk longer to those people than to others you might run into. The object is to form a network (not necessarily to meet customers directly), so you want to try to meet other business owners who provide complementary products or services to similar clients, so that you can share referrals with them or do projects together. For instance, if your business provides database design services to other businesses, you would probably want to focus on meeting others who provide business services, such as graphic designers and accountants. On the other hand, if you are a massage therapist, you would probably want to focus on other healthcare and personal service providers. Why? Well, consider this. If you were looking for a database designer, do you think you would be more likely to ask your massage therapist or your accountant for a reference, and whose reference do you think you would trust more? And if you were looking for an acupuncturist, do you think you would be more likely to ask your massage therapist or your accountant for a reference, and who would you be more likely to trust?
- Plan and/or rehearse your message -- have an "elevator speech" ready to go (15 seconds to explain what products or services you sell), and also be ready to expand.
- Your audience of potential network members is not likely to understand and act on your message the first time you present it. For that reason, it's important to find a group that contains a lot of good potential connections for you and your business, and attend regularly.
- When you meet people who you think are likely to be good referral partners, arrange a one-on-one meeting with them (coffee or lunch), so you can get to know each other better. Referrals are more likely to happen between people who have spent more than a few minutes getting to know each other.
Armed with these ideas about the importance of networking, and a strategy for who you want to meet and what you are going to say to them, the next step is to find meetings to attend. You can do this by checking out the following types of resources:
- Local calendars, such as in on-line and paper newspapers -- especially business-oriented news outlets
- Business organizations, such as your local Chamber of Commerce and local offices of the Small Business Administration
- Business "co-working" spaces
- National business networking organizations, such as Business Networking International
- Interest groups and user groups. For instance, if you are a Drupal professional, your local Drupal user group.