Networking is a big part of business, and it’s especially important when you’re a small business owner just starting out. There will be plenty of demands on your resources, and it can all feel overwhelming or even intimidating at times.
Still, there are several ways to get ahead and position yourself as a leader in the space. When it comes to networking for small businesses, word-of-mouth marketing, online connections and personal relationships can go a long way in generating leads, getting great advice and making sales.
Read on for networking tips that will help you develop a strategy for success.
As a small business owner, your schedule is likely full, and one of the challenges to networking is finding time. You can start by leveraging social media and connecting with others online. According to SCORE, 77% of small businesses employ social media to help core business functions. Twitter, for instance, is a helpful platform to keep up with industry influencers and share information on news and current events. Facebook can help you build relationships with customers, and LinkedIn can expand your network by getting introductions to mutual connections.
Using social media platforms will help establish yourself as an authority in your industry and build your following. When you’re first starting out, don’t worry about keeping up with the various platforms. Focus on one, cultivating the right tone and defining your strategy, then grow your network and master it before moving to another.
While there are plenty of opportunities to network in the virtual world, face-to-face encounters are often more memorable and valuable in the long run. Research published in The Washington Post found that face-to-face requests are 34 times more fruitful than emailed solicitations.
Look for events that are related to your industry or interests, such as conferences or trade shows. Do some research beforehand to find out who will be in attendance; organizers often publish the names and bios of speakers. Go in with a goal of how many people you want to meet — and keep that number realistic. If you try to meet too many colleagues, you won’t have time to form meaningful connections. You can also prepare by following the people you hope to meet at the event on social media beforehand, learning more about their backgrounds and interests.
When you meet someone new, be sure to have a quick way to introduce yourself and your business. Make it intriguing and short; 30 seconds or less is best. After all, it’s called an “elevator pitch” because you’re aiming to capture someone’s attention within the brief time frame of an elevator ride.
Consider framing your pitch in a way that piques their interests and emphasizes their goals, especially in your introduction. For example, instead of saying, “I’m a public relations consultant,” you could say, “I help my clients get press that supports and grows their businesses.”
While your goal in networking for small businesses is ultimately about sharing and promoting your company, the way to do it effectively is by being a great listener so you create genuine connections.
Make an effort to listen more than you speak. Ask open-ended questions to get the other person to share more than a simple “yes” or “no” answer. And practice active listening by nodding your head, looking the person in the eye and repeating back what you heard in your responses.
Once you make a connection, follow up. It’s fine to exchange business cards, but you should also connect online through LinkedIn or social media accounts. This will provide an opportunity to finish a conversation you started in person and serve as a subtle reminder about your business.
Consider networking events to be the starting point for this new professional relationship. Following up soon after enables you to build on that solid connection.
Just like with advertising, you want to get a return on your investment for your networking efforts. This means attending events and spending time on platforms that make sense for your business and your goals.
Industry events can be a good use of your time if you’re looking to connect with colleagues and industry partners. Or, maybe your time is better spent exhibiting at a trade show if your aim is to nurture relationships with potential clients. For social media, choose the platforms where your colleagues or customers spend their time. B2B businesses, for example, might do better on LinkedIn than Facebook.
Being an entrepreneur is like being part of a club of driven individuals who are launching and growing companies. While you alone are responsible for your business, you can learn a great deal from other like-minded people.
Consider joining groups that help small business owners connect, such as the Young Entrepreneur Council or the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. Then, consider ways you can support each other, such as through partnerships and shared promotions.
Another technique for small business networking is to find a mentor, especially when you’re in the startup phase of your business. This trusted advisor can offer valuable guidance and serve as a great connection. Even better, as your relationship grows, mentors will often increase your network by introducing you to theirs. You can reach out to a person with whom you have a shared connection and ask if they would be your mentor, or you can get paired with someone through an organization, such as SCORE or MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership.
Once you build your network, remember to stay in touch however you can. Forming connections takes work, so keep the relationship going by reaching out on occasion through an email, a phone call or even meeting up for a quick coffee or lunch. Consider setting up Google alerts that will notify you when one of your contacts is mentioned in the news. Congratulating people on their successes can help build relationships. Be sure to give back as much as you receive from your network.
And remember: it’s not what you know, but whom you know.
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