Networking for Your Small Business

Networking is perhaps second only to cold calling in terms of the contention it creates as an effective small business marketing strategy. Some small business marketing experts say that networking is a waste of time; others insist that it’s the only small business marketing tool that’s really vital to success.

The debate probably arises because of differences in what networking is. Staying in touch with past customers, for example, is undoubtedly a highly effective and important small business marketing tool. Regularly attending networking functions may or may not be as effective a small business marketing tool.

So let’s consider those two types of networking separately:

Networking type 1: Staying in touch with past and current customers as well as those who have inquired about your services

This type of networking is probably one of the most important small business marketing tools you have. Past and current customers, as well as those who have inquired about your services make up the ideal small business marketing list: people for whom you have complete contact information and who, you know, are interested in your products or services.

To successfully network with these customers and prospective customers, set up a way to contact them on a regular basis. One way to do that is through a monthly (or quarterly) newsletter in which you offer relevant information (newsletters have the added benefit of positioning you as the expert). Another is to send out promotional offers that will entice those customers to return and do business with you again. Yet another is to send holiday cards (try sending cards on holidays that aren’t traditionally celebrated with cards, such as the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving to really stand out from your competition).

Networking type 2: Attending networking functions with other business owners

Attending networking association functions is no doubt less effective than the first type of networking. Some small business owners consider this second type of small business marketing to be a complete waste of time, while others find that they make contacts that turn in to business customers.

Perhaps the best argument against attending networking association functions as a means of small business marketing is that your network association is made up of other small business owners just like you who are anxious for customers, not looking to make friends with other small business owners.

The flip side of that argument is that networking associations, when run well, offer you a chance to network with other small business owners selling different kinds of products or services from whom you may get referrals or with whom you may start a joint venture.

If network associations are going to help your small business marketing efforts, though, they should meet a few conditions:

1. They should limit members to one business in each market sector, so that you’re not “networking” with your competition

2. They should require each member to meet a leads quota – to ensure that no one is trying to free ride

Whichever type networking fits well within your small business marketing strategy, the key point to remember is that staying at the forefront of your contacts’ minds is critical to getting the referral (or the repeat business, in the case of current and past customers). There are a number of software programs that will help you establish a list of contacts and remind you when it’s time to follow up.