Networking has always been a core element to building new relationships and influencing businesses in new and innovative ways. To network these days, savvy business owners can join professional and civic organizations, volunteer for good causes or take full advantage of electronic tools such as e-mail, web conferencing, and webinars. Even home-based entrepreneurs can find various online platforms to effectively network without even stepping foot outside the home. Here are a few tips for you and your business to up the networking game.
Groups Can Bolster Business
The easiest way to launch a networking campaign is to join an industry association, professional group, or civic organization. Besides providing a venue for socializing with other professionals and business owners, members typically come together to support and promote one another, and share common interests.
Chambers of Commerce
A federation of more than three million businesses nationwide, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce advocates for the free enterprise sector in government, judicial, and regulatory levels. Roughly 96 percent of its membership includes companies with fewer than 100 employees.
Closer to home, city, county or regional Chambers of Commerce provide a wealth of networking alternatives from workshops and seminars, to "after-hours" gatherings and galas. The idea behind these events, of course, is to promote fellowship while doing business.
The includes direct links to accredited chapters nationwide and around the world, as well as information about its many programs and initiatives.
Organizations related to particular industries can be a big help when it comes to making valuable connections within one’s own discipline. Besides offering educational, career and even financial support, many groups (e.g., The National Association of Tax Professionals, the American Bar Association) sponsor local and regional chapters; and most provide regular networking opportunities, including national and state conferences and events. (A quick internet search will identify professional or trade groups specific to your discipline).
Professional In-Person Networking Groups
Professional networking clubs get together on a regular basis to exchange "leads" on potential clients and customers. The rationale, according to most experts, is to increase contact and new business opportunities for members, as well as to strengthen connections in the business community at large.
The most reputable groups meet weekly, usually for breakfast or lunch, and screen potential members for sound business practices and ethics.
Online professional networking is a great way to reach people all over the world. LinkedIn is one of the most popular online networking sites that allow users to connect, network, and search for jobs all in one convenient location. Facebook groups are also another great way to connect with other small business owners online to share best practices and ask questions.
While promoting one’s business is not a valid reason to join a civic organization per se, most experts agree it’s a fine way to establish a positive community profile and do good work at the same time.
Complete lists of local and regional civic organizations of all kinds are available through area Chambers of Commerce. Online research for individual, city, county, state and national organizations may also be an effective way to assess available networking opportunities and support something you feel passionate about.
Volunteering for a favorite charity not only helps those in need but can serve as a meeting place for those businesses and business owners entrenched in their communities. To start, you may want to visit the website of the United Way for links to local chapters of member organizations and other resources for volunteer opportunities near you.
Electronic Networking: Click to Communicate
Increasingly sophisticated tech tools have opened the way to interact with others without leaving the comfort or safety of the home office. Used in adjunct with "real-life" social/professional events, functions such as e-mail campaigns, web conferencing, and webinars allow business owners to network with any colleague or potential client from anywhere in the world.
E-mail campaigns enable business owners to reach the greatest number of potential clients or customers inexpensively, quickly, and efficiently. Still, experts point out that effective use of this networking tool requires a degree of technical preparedness, as well as practical knowledge. Here are some tips to make the job easier:
- Purchase the right software. Programs that create and manage lists, generate reports, provide design elements and track responses start at a low monthly fee or discounted annual contract.
- Make an e-mail list. Target current customers, colleagues, trade show/conference attendees, former classmates and people new to the area. Check with potential recipients prior to adding their names and incorporate a subscribe/unsubscribe box in every mailing that you then actively manage.
- Make e-mail content fun, interesting, and valuable. Introduce specials, and other offers to entice new customers and reward loyalty.
- Invite recipients to visit the company website. Also include complete contact information, such as a business address and telephone number, to underscore credibility.
- Track responses. Doing so allows business owners to monitor and assess the most effective e-mail strategies.
- Be sure to follow the CAN-SPAM Act. Review the FTC's compliance guide here.
A web conference is a video meeting held online. Attendees from any location make contact through web applications, sometimes downloading common software to get set up. The advantages to this brand of networking (as opposed to traditional video conferencing) are the capability to collaborate at a higher level, by sharing screens, presentations, etc.
A form of web conferencing, webinars permit business owners to present and/or attend workshops, classes or lectures online. These may take the form of one-way webcasts or can be interactive between viewers and presenters.
A valuable networking function for long-distance or large audiences, the webinar enables business owners to showcase services and products in a professional setting, at the same time placing them as a thought leader on relevant topics.
For a webinar to be a truly effective networking event, experts stress that it is critical to plan ahead. Publicize the webcast rather than the product, follow a structured agenda, and make the presentation worth the viewers’ time investment.
Consider a follow-up survey after the webinar to provide insights for future events on what went well or where there are opportunities to improve.
These are just a few of the ways that you can take your networking efforts to new heights. Good luck with this all-important activity.