What Are the Top Networking Strategies for Small Business Owners?
You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: building and maintaining a strong network is one of the most important parts of succeeding as a small business owner. Using networking strategies effectively and efficiently can help you find new business partners, identify new market opportunities, pitch new clients, find a mentor, secure new investments, and a host of other things that will up your game and boost your success.
We’ve broken down four of the most important networking strategies and tips to make sure that you’re empowering your small business with the people, relationships, and contacts that you need to succeed.
Focus on Building Relationships
The key to building strong and valuable networking strategies lies in your ability to build and maintain relationships. This small business owner doesn’t consider himself a “networker”, but rather a “strategic relationship builder”.
“I run a restaurant chain in a small town. The #1 thing that we focus on is building relationships. Whether it be with our customers, our local community institutions, or with our business partners, the key to our success has been in our ability to build, maintain, and then leverage high-quality relationships into continued patronage or lucrative deals.”
Lots of business owners skip that first step and go immediately into selling their product or service when they network. Successful networking requires that you focus on building beneficial relationships. If you show your customers, communities, and fellow professionals respect and consistently provide a high level of service, it will pay off tenfold through word-of-mouth marketing and professional clout.
Be Prepared: Setting Goals and Expectations
Successful, effective networking strategies require that you have done your homework on potential contacts and set goals about what you’d like to get out of a particular event. Networking without preparation is like going to the gym without a plan: you may feel like you’ve gotten a lot done, but you haven’t made much progress towards your specific goals.
Are you looking for potential clients, a chance to pitch yourself to investors, or new business opportunities? Whatever the case may be, your goals for networking will determine how you choose networking events, what you bring to them, and who you’ll target once you’re there. This entrepreneur can attest:
“When I first started my business, I did lots of research about local networking events that focused on small business investment. By targeting my networking efforts, I was able to find funding faster than if I had just attended every industry event under the sun.”
Once you’re in the thick of it, be ready to put yourself out there. Update your business cards, practice your elevator pitch, and get ready to meet people! One of the best questions you can ask new people when you’re networking is “How can I/my business help?”. That frames the conversation in the context of building a connection that’s beneficial for everyone involved.
It’s also important that you don’t get discouraged if new contacts or entire events don’t go well. Networking requires that you practice and put in time on a regular basis. It’s a numbers game: the more consistently you work at it and the more new people that you meet, the chances that you’ll cultivate business relationships that bring you value get better and better.
Leverage LinkedIn and Social Media
The digital age is here. LinkedIn and other forms of social media can be incredibly effective networking tools when used correctly and strategically.
Networks like LinkedIn have powerful tools that can help you to identify people, firms, and events by location, industry, purpose. Leveraging search tools can help you identify new networking groups, potential clients, or those seeking business partners that you otherwise may not have had the chance to find. This digital marketer agrees:
“Using LinkedIn has been HUGE for us. We use it all the time to engage with and reach out to people who may be in need of our services. Our team can only go to so many in-person events. LinkedIn gives us the ability to strategically network at scale.”
When you use a social platform, have a plan for how you want to engage with other professionals. Don’t just send them a connection request or send out the occasional low-value tweet. Once you’ve identified people, firms, or groups of interest, be deliberate in how you engage with them and market your brand.
Lastly, but very importantly, keep your small business’s social network presence sharp, polished, and professional. Other people are using social platforms for networking purposes too! You want people who come across your or your business’s profile to be impressed and interested, not turned off by an unprofessional look. It may be worth it to invest in some social media consulting to make sure that your business is leveraging best practices to dominate on the web.
Measure Your Results
Networking, like any other aspect of your venture, is something that every small business owner should be diligent about measuring. Tracking the results of your efforts can help you identify the networking events, trade shows, and industry groups that are giving you the most “bang-for-your-buck” when it comes to bringing value to your venture.
For every networking event that you attend, keep track of the new contacts that you make and how they pan out. This is especially valuable for events that are recurring. You may find that your local chamber of commerce results in far more quality contacts than you thought, or that a huge conference you thought was super valuable is actually a waste of time. Diligently keeping track of the metrics of your networking efforts will help you to optimize and realign your focus and prioritize high-yield events. This consultant and part-time freelancer goes above and beyond when it comes to their “networklytics”:
“For every networking channel that I use, whether that be a conference, trade show, online group, or a relevant happy hour, I keep track of who I’ve met and how we’ve interacted after meeting each other. I use this data to attach a “network value” to each event that I go to. This has helped immensely with identifying events that help me to find the most (and highest paying) clients for my side hustle.”
We don’t all need to be that data-driven in our approach, but keeping track of what is and isn’t working is an important part of the process.