Benefits of networking for businesses (part 3)

In the last two articles in this series, I’ve discussed some of the benefits of networking for business and that, as a small business, networking is probably one of your better strategies – especially if you are the key reason for the success of your business so far.

When you’re in small business one of the main reasons that people will do business with you is because of you. They have a relationship or a connection with you or they know you through some sort of network or association. ‘You’ is what makes your business unique – and that’s marketable.

After having shared some of my thoughts on word of mouth marketing and referrals for your business, in this article I’ll share some of my experiences which may help draw parallels with what you can do in your business. Please keep in mind that these are my personal experiences only and not intended as a criticism or endorsement of any form or forum for networking.

My experience with formal business networking

My first experience of formal business networking was with Business Network International (BNI). For those who not familiar with BNI, it’s a structured approach to business networking, specifically for referring business. Obviously, the amount and value of referrals can vary according to how the specific BNI Chapter or area is managed and the enthusiasm and quality of its members.

I found BNI to be a good training ground for basic networking skills and techniques, and although I’m no longer part of a BNI Chapter, I recommend it to anyone who is starting out in networking for business. However, given the demands and commitment it’s probably more suited to a mature business rather than a start up. Start ups might be able to benefit from being part of the group, but I think their value to the group would be tested. Relatively high membership/renewal fees and a weekly meeting schedule may deter all but the most motivated and committed individuals – which is a good thing.

There are many networking groups like BNI going by many different names focused on business networking. Many clients and others I know in business remain in BNI and swear by it, but at the end of the day, you need to find something that works for you keeping in mind the level of commitment and accountability between members of the group. Interestingly, I still maintain many of the relationships I formed while I was in BNI and in fact the number of referrals that I received increased noticeably shortly after I resigned from the group.

Small versus BIG

Over the years, I’ve also involved myself with local business chambers – and while BNI was referral-focused networking, my involvement with the chambers initially focused on the social aspect of business networking. Compared to the weekly BNI meetings, the chamber functions were bigger with a larger cross section of industries and businesses.

‘After 5’ functions, which bring people together after normal business hours, are a common event for the chambers and other networking groups. I previously attended those functions (as well as some morning briefings) however, while they were enjoyable social events, I found they had little measurable benefit.

It’s quite normal to see the same social cliques at every event. I’m not criticising it in any way, otherwise I’d be as guilty as the next person – but it’s quite natural for that to occur. In addition to that, any attempt to meet someone new (maybe even if its a new attendee) or to join a foreign clique can be challenging if not possible depending on the strength of existing social connections or the lack of any other connection. Further, at that time of the day some people just wanting to unwind, socialise and have a drink rather than network for business (assuming there is a clear distinction).

I believe the social dynamics within a larger group that meets on a less regular basis work the same way as in a small group that meets on a more regular basis, but just slower – a lot slower. Successfully building relationships that matter in this context (compared to something like BNI) takes more commitment or dedication otherwise the half-hearted attempt each time leaves the relationship at a superficial level – perhaps purely social, without any business benefit.

In recent years, the local business chambers that I’ve been involved in have started to develop their own form of structured networking – similar to the BNI model. By focusing on the smaller more intimate networking groups, as well as their usual larger social events, I see the chambers attracting an even wider market to include people who want to socialise, those who want to networking for business, and those who want to do a bit of both.

Final thoughts

I think it’s quite easy to talk about networking in general, but the real test is just getting involved. In the next instalment I’ll just share some final thoughts on the subject and then look forward to catching up with all of you on the networking scene.

Benefits of networking for businesses (part 2)

Networking for small business

In my previous article, I shared some of my thoughts on the power of word of mouth marketing and personal referrals for businesses. As I’ve said, I’m not an expert in business networking, but I’ve experienced what it’s done for my business and I’ve witnessed how it’s benefited other businesses too. If anything, I hope that this series of article swill shed light on some of those experiences to give you something to think about in terms of whether it can benefit your business as well.

Small business is unique

Big brand businesses allocate a lot of resources into their marketing and public relations to ensure that you (the consumer) is aware of their brand. For big brands, brand awareness means being front of mind all the time. You’ll see them on television, on the radio, in newspapers and magazines, on billboards and of course, over the internet. They’ll be sponsoring sporting teams, community activities, and major events. Big brands are everywhere and in every aspect of our lives.

If you’re a small business, then (like me) you probably wouldn’t have the resources to maintain the same level of marketing as big brand businesses. So what can you do as a small business? Even without exploring any other part of your business, I already know you’ve got something that the big brands. You’ve got something that’s unique to your business and it’s something that will give you an edge over those larger competitors. That something unique is YOU!

Business networking requires you

We’ve all got social networks of some sort or other. These various networks exist through family or friends at all different levels and through different forms of association. You might know people from school, from university, through work, through church, over the internet, or even through whatever your normal daily activity might be (ie, your local postman, the checkout girl at the supermarket, your favourite barista etc). Regardless of the network that you may belong to or how it came into existence, the next question is whether that network adds value into your business.

Sometimes some networks are totally distinct and separate from business and sometimes other networks are fully integrated into business. Understanding the dynamics of each network will allow you to navigate them successfully, and more importantly, appropriately. Have you even been invited by a ‘friend’ to a multilevel marketing seminar? I’m sure they probably told you that it was about something other than multilevel marketing and they never asked whether you’re actually interested (assuming correctly that you’re not)? You’ll know what I mean, it’s not just what you do, but how you do it – especially if you value and want to maintain the relationships with those people in your networks.

Formal Business Networking

Aside from the various social networks that we all belong to, there are other networking groups that are focused purely on business networking, or networking for business. When joining this kind of group, there’s no question or uncertainty about what the main goal is – it’s all about business.

You’ll find that there are many different networking groups for businesses and they all go about their networking in different ways. Some groups are very structured while others might be more casual. Some meet weekly while other meet less frequently. Some meet in specific venues while others may meet online only. At the end of the day, you should find a business networking group that suits you and meets your needs because that’s where you’ll be at your best and be able to do your best.

I started formal business networking several years ago, and my first experience was a real eye-opener. I had been invited by a business associate and didn’t know what to expect. While the returns were not immediate, with commitment and dedication I found the rewards to be much more than just the immediate network.

Up next…

In the next part in this series of articles, I will be sharing some of what my team of lawyers and I have done in terms of formal business networking and what it has meant for us.