Business professionals who don't have a lot of spare time often ask us which networking groups provide the biggest bang for their buck. There are five main types, and what works best depends on the business they're in and the prospects they want to meet.
Here's a quick rundown of the most familiar types.
1. Casual contact networks
These are general business groups that allow many people from various overlapping professions. These groups usually meet monthly and often hold mixers where everyone mingles informally. They may also hold meetings where guest speakers present on important business topics or to discuss issues concerning legislation, community affairs or local business programs.
The best examples of these groups are the thousands of chambers of commerce active across North America and elsewhere in the world. They offer participants an opportunity to make valuable contacts with many other businesspeople in the community. By attending chamber events, you can make initial contacts that will be valuable in other aspects of developing your referral business.
But, because casual-contact organizations aren't tailored primarily to help you get referrals, you have to exert effort to make them work. For example, you can volunteer to be a chamber ambassador, a position that that requires little time commitment but provides much exposure. Sitting on committees helps you get to know members better. Most of all, you need to attend events regularly so you can take advantage of every opportunity to strengthen the relationships you form.
2. Strong contact networks
Organizations whose purpose is principally to help members exchange business referrals are known as strong contact referral groups. Some of these groups meet weekly, typically over lunch or breakfast. Most of them limit membership to one member per profession or specialty.
Strong contact networks provide highly focused opportunities for you and your associates to begin developing your referral marketing campaigns. You won't meet hundreds of business people in this type of group, but all the members will be carrying your business cards around with them everywhere they go. The net result is like having up to 50 salespeople working for you! With a program like this, you'll be establishing powerful long-term relationships that will prove invaluable.
If you're considering a strong-contact group, you'll want to keep a few things in mind:
- You need to have a schedule that lets you attend all or almost all of the meetings. Regular attendance is vital to developing a rapport with the other members of the group and getting to know their businesses.
- You need to feel comfortable going to a networking event and being on the lookout for prospects who can help other members of your group. A good strong-contact networking group typically tracks the amount of business that's conducted. If you're not "pulling your weight," you'll be asked to leave or referrals will stop coming your way.
3. Community service clubs
Unlike more business-oriented groups, service groups aren't set up primarily for referral networking; their activities are focused on service to the community. However, in the course of giving time and effort to civic causes, you form lasting relationships that broaden and deepen your personal and business networks. If you go in not to benefit but to contribute, the social capital you accrue will eventually reward you in other ways and from other directions -- business among them.
4. Professional associations
Professional association members tend to be from one specific type of industry, such as banking, architecture, personnel, accounting or health. The primary purpose of a professional association is to exchange information and ideas.
Your goal in tapping into such networks is to join groups that contain your potential clients or target markets. A simple procedure for targeting key groups is to ask your best clients or customers which groups they belong to.
Many groups limit their membership to those who have specific industry credentials, and vendors aren't welcome. However, to generate more income or to give their full members a well-rounded slate of potential vendors, a growing number of associations have created an associate member category, whose members aren't active in the business or profession for whom the group was formed.
In these type of networks, we recommend you stand out by finding ways to help without selling to members. As an example, if you were a social media consultant and joined an association of professional business coaches, rather than trying to "sell" them on your services, how about volunteering to run the association's social platforms? Taking charge of their Facebook and LinkedIn pages would be a great start toward building relationships and showing them your value.
5. Online/social media networks
From a business perspective, the ideal use for social media is to build your brand and your credibility with the people you're connected to by providing value for your connections and followers. Whether you're talking about face-to-face networking or online networking -- credibility and relationship building is still critical to the process.
With social media, the key to success is outlining a strategy that considers the amount of time you can realistically dedicate to your online marketing efforts and being consistent. Map out a weekly schedule that outlines specific days and times you'll spend developing your social media strategy. Figure out what's realistic and what makes sense for your company, and go from there.
Once your strategy's in place, you'll no doubt be anxious to start seeing a return on your social media investment. It's vital to remember that networking is more about farming than it is about hunting, whether online or face to face. It's about cultivating relationships with people. It's about building the credibility of your brand and that doesn't happen overnight.
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