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.
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.