Used to be that networking meant you joined the Rotary and golfed at the country club, got together at the meet-and-greet cocktail hour to swap business cards and, almost as an afterthought, mentioned what you do for a living to your son’s friend’s father in the bleachers at the softball game.
Well, networking has grown up, mostly thanks to the internet, and it is one of the most effective, cost-effective ways for us small business owners to promote ourselves.
Think of networking as mostly free, word-of-mouth, marketing-by-walking-around. Here are some ideas to make networking work for you.
- Be in touch. Thanks to email, it’s never been easier to stay connected with associates, clients and prospects from around the world. I send out short business and motivational tips via email on a regular basis. It’s not uncommon for a client to click “reply” to talk about a new project. At the very least, everyone knows who I am and how to contact me.
- Be involved. Join organizations in your virtual and local business community. As a business consultant, I volunteer my time and talents with such organizations as NEW North in Northeast Wisconsin and the Kewaunee County Economic Development Council. Nationally, I provide marketing and communications support to an organization I helped found that represents my primary markets. The friendship and business connections are invaluable.
- Polish your elevator talk. Be prepared to tell someone who you are and what you do in the time it takes to take a 30-second elevator ride. Better yet, put your talk on the back of your business card.
- Promote others…no strings attached. Don’t contact associates only when you want something. Be generous with your time. I recently met a terrific photographer, Tim Swobobda, from Two Rivers, Wisconsin. (His glamour shots of me make me look good…well, almost.) So, for an investment of 15 minutes (the time it took to compose an email), I sent out a strong endorsement of this gentleman to all my business and nonprofit contacts in the region. Another way I promote others is to invite quality writers with a good message to contribute to my business blog (www.TheFreestyleEntrepreneur.com). This promotes them … and helps promote my site as well.
- Send out calls for help. When I need advice – whether I am seeking a recommendation for a good book to read or advice with a business problem – I send out an email to a very select group (the members vary depending on the topic) and ask them for help. The results are always amazing.
- Be selective. Don’t waste your time on people with no talent, no work ethic or no understanding of the concept of a two-way relationship. Most of all, only endorse people you are confident can deliver. Recommending an unreliable associate will only reflect poorly on you.
- Be limited. Your job is not to be a bully pulpit. If you send out an email every week that heralds “the best (fill in the blank) I’ve ever met,” pretty soon you’ll get a reputation as a shameless promoter, and your messages will be deleted as spam.
- Cultivate one-on-one relationships with good people. A friend of mine from Iowa got me in the habit of scheduling 30-minute phone calls. I now do this (either monthly or quarterly) with about half a dozen business associates/friends. We talk about everything from business to our families to our faith to our troubles.
- Invite three or four associates to become your board of directors. These men and women may be outside your industry, but are key members of the community (either local or virtual). They may include your banker, president of the Chamber of Commerce, or just someone with integrity and wisdom. Meet quarterly over breakfast or via teleconference. Pick their brains and ask for advice on specific and general business situations. You pay them back by volunteering to serve on their boards, using their services and recommending them to others.
The bottom line: Networking works. It’s inexpensive and builds business by building relationships, which makes it a perfect marketing tool for small-business owners. Make it work for you.
Work hard. Make money. Have fun. — John R. Ingrisano, The Freestyle Entrepreneur.
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