How to Network Like Your Small Business Depends On It
Networking can be daunting for small business owners because it takes time, energy, and a certain amount of extroversion if you’re meeting people in person. But networking is essential for connecting with prospects and building a peer group to help you work through business decisions, learn about new trends in your field, and promote each other’s work.
Networking doesn’t have to be hard. If you know what you want to accomplish and how you work best, you can find a networking approach that works for you.
1. Know Your Networking Goals
Small business owners are sometimes disappointed with their networking efforts because they lump networking and marketing together. Networking may lead to sales eventually, but expecting any particular networking event to generate new business is like expecting to get married at the end of a coffee date. (Sales expert Jill Konrath describes a similar problem with rushed sales pitches.)
What are some realistic networking goals?
Goal #1: Get on their Radar
Letting people know what you do is step one in networking. You can let people know what you’re doing without being too promotional, and you can introduce yourself to prospects without trying to make a sale. Your URL is enough to let people check out your business and learn more at this stage.
Goal #2: Learn More About Your Industry
Networking with other business owners is a great way to find out what works, what doesn’t, and what’s the next big thing in your niche or region. This should be an ongoing part of your networking.
Goal #3: Build Relationships
This is the big goal. Whether you’re building relationships with prospective and current customers, getting to know vendors, checking in with your peers, or touching base with people in media, the real aim of networking is to build connections to people who share some of the same professional interests and goals so you can help one another succeed.
2. Know Your Networking Style
Does meeting new people give you a boost of energy? Congratulations, extrovert! You’re an ideal candidate for in-person networking.
Do you feel drained after a big meeting or crowded event? Welcome, introvert! You’ll probably excel at networking online.
These are generalizations, of course, and you don’t need to stick to only one approach. When you’re new to networking, though, it’s easier to start if you’re comfortable. You can always branch out later as your skills and confidence grow. Here are some of your options.
Online networking opportunities may be the best thing about social media. Industry groups on Facebook and LinkedIn give you access to people in your industry, and local business groups on Facebook can help you keep up with events you may want to attend in person.
You can also set up your own groups on these platforms or on Skype or Slack to keep in touch with your colleagues and bounce ideas off each other. If you follow industry leads and experts on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, comments and replies can be a great place to connect with others in your field. Make sure that your social profiles include a link to your website for people who want to learn more.
Local In-Person Groups and Events
From general groups like chambers of commerce to specific niche groups for different professions, there’s probably at least one local group near you where you can do some local networking. If you live in a mid-size or larger city, there may even be neighborhood-level groups that host business networking events. Even if you’re not ready to mingle in person, sign up for their emails to get a sense of how active they are and who participates.
Regional and National Conferences
TED events. SXSW. CES. There’s no shortage of conferences and industry trade shows you could attend. Before you invest in conference admission and travel expenses, research your options to make sure you’ll have the opportunity to make connections in line with your goals. Conferences also have email lists, social media channels, and webinars you can sign up for to find people to connect with throughout the year.
3. Know Your Networking Budget
Once you’ve found options that feel comfortable and fit your goals, focus on the ones that fit your budget and schedule.
If you’re an an extrovert with a new digital business to launch, trade shows and big events like SXSW could be well worth the investment of several days and a few thousand dollars in registration, travel, and lodging costs.
If attending a big conference isn’t doable, present your gregarious self to local groups and to media outlets as an expert they can contact for quotes and interviews on topics in your field. HARO is a great way to connect with reporters.
My fellow introverts may be thinking we’ve got the sweetest deal because most of our preferred networking options are so inexpensive: a LinkedIn Premium membership, local business group dues, and national professional groups.
There are some pricier introvert-friendly networking options that can pay off, too. Paid mastermind groups give a small group of working professionals access to knowledge and feedback from an industry expert. A good mastermind group can help you step up your game and build close connections to people in your business—and you can stay connected long after the program is done to talk about rates, contracts, and business trends.
4. Know Your Networking Etiquette
Once you’ve figured out your best networking methods, growing and maintaining a healthy professional network is relatively easy. Offer a good product or service and treat your connections the way you’d like them to treat you.
Please and Thank You Go a Long Way
Respect your connections’ time when you make a request or issue an invitation, and don’t take it personally if they’re too busy to engage. Always thank people who share their expertise, offer their advice, or send you referrals.
Be the Connection You Want to See
When you have information you think your connections can use, share it with them. Do you have a client project you need to hand off? Refer it to someone in your network. Did one of your peers earn an award? Give them a shout out on social media. When you get a boost from someone in your network, give them credit for the assist.
Bring Something to Share
At in-person networking events, bring something to hand out as you connect with people. It can be as simple as your business card or as fancy as samples from your bake shop or boutique. Make sure it’s branded so people will remember where they got that bonbon or handmade soap.
When you set realistic goals, choose methods you like, and treat your connections well, you’re on the way to building a professional network that’s worth the effort.
Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelancer who enjoys writing about business development and marketing, e-commerce payments and fraud prevention, and travel.