As a coach, I'm aware of many businesses that pursue ‘silver bullets' when it comes to attracting new clients and customers. It's quite a fascinating topic when there are many ‘guru's' in the big, bad world of small business who spend more of their time ramming 287 step plans to becoming a millionaire, down business owners throats on various platforms.
It upsets me that many small businesses don't recognise that they have to keep a tight reign on their marketing budgets. They also don't realise that because they are not a ‘big household brand', that for people to buy their stuff, there is a process called, "Know, Like and Trust". What is key for B2B, (Business to Business) companies, is there needs to be a recognition that, should they enter the world of social media or pay someone extraordinary sums of money for website SEO, they may as well have been marketing to everyone in the Yellow Pages directory. (And they're closing!) In other words, if you're marketing to everyone, you are marketing to no-one. As a result, there are hundreds and thousands of companies up and down the country, marketing to no-one. Hoping that they get picked through the noise of social media and the pot luck pricing system of Google and other search engines. (That's an entirely different blog for another day!)
So what should businesses who want to attract new clients and customers actually spend their time and money on?
I'm talking about good, old-fashioned networking, which - especially at the local level - is still one of the most cost effective marketing methods available to a small business. Unfortunately, it's also something that very few people are good at and if they learned some basics, could guarantee them impressive amounts of income for their business in the coming 12 months.
Just visit any networking event and in no time you'll quickly see numerous examples of bad networking. I'm talking about the guy who passes out business cards to everyone in the room and yet couldn't tell you the name of a single person he talked to an hour later…or the woman who is clearly more interested in the breakfast buffet than in any meaningful business-related conversation. It's no wonder many people concentrate on other marketing tactics when their "networking" experiences involve examples like these. It's a shame because if people stick with it and keep to a "Know, Like and Trust" strategy, in time, (and it's not as long as you think), they will soon reap the business rewards.
The good news is that they leave room for people who really want to grow their business with a great return on their investment. So just to be perfectly clear, this superficial type of networking is not what I'm recommending as a way to grow your business. What I am recommending is developing long-term, meaningful relationships with quality business professionals who are ready and willing to help you accomplish your business goals. By participating in local business networking groups, business owners can not only improve their networking skills, they can also meet strategic partners and get referrals - lots of referrals. So it becomes a ‘win: win' situation. In a second, I'll give you five specific ways that local networking groups can help grow a small business, but first I want to define exactly what kind of groups I'm talking about.
Local business networking groups defined
When I use the term "local business networking groups", the first thing that might come to mind might be the chamber of commerce, Rotary Club, or Lion's Club. These are all fine organisations that serve a useful purpose, but they are not what I am referring to. For the purpose of this article, when I say "local business networking group" I am referring to groups that meet the following criteria:
• Groups that can be relaxed as well as business focused.
• Groups that perhaps only allow one representative from each profession to join them.
• Groups that allow you to network with other like minded businesses at events across the country.
• The primary purpose of the group is to facilitate the exchange of business referrals between members.
• The secondary purpose, and just as important for some, is the social aspect of the groups.
• The group meets in person on a regular basis (weekly or bi-weekly).
• Meetings have a structured format so that members get equal consideration and do not have to fight for attention.
• Members are expected to adhere to a code of ethics and/or meet quality standards.
There are many groups out there, but my favourite is the 4N Groups. I'm not an intensely serious type of person, but I love the slightly more relaxed and social aspect of the groups than perhaps a BNI group. There's nothing wrong with a BNI type group, but I found that a more relaxed atmosphere suited my style. Within any of these groups you'll find groups that are healthy and very effective, and groups that are run very poorly and are not effective at all. For the purposes of this blog, I'm referring to a healthy, well-run group of a local networking event meeting the above criteria. The key to finding what works for you is taking action, getting off your backside and experience these types of groups. To be remembered, you've got to first show up. And if you don't show up, how can you make an informed decision as to wether networking is really for you.
Now that we've got that straightened out, let's get to those five specific tips for getting the most out of these groups once you are a member.
Tip #1: Be specific when you request referrals
One common characteristic of the type of networking group I described is that members will have the opportunity to ask for referrals. In fact, members are ‘expected', (some more than others), to refer business to each other, but that doesn't mean that those referrals will turn into customers. In order to get the most out of your membership in local networking groups, be as specific as possible when you ask for referrals.
For example, here's a specific referral request that an estate agent in a local networking group might make of their fellow members:
"I'm looking for an introduction to Mr. John Smith from John Smith's Property Management. I know Mr. Smith has his property rentals currently organised with another agent, who has recently been in the news after they went into liquidation. If someone could introduce me to Mr. Smith so that I could educate him about the benefits of organising his rentals with our company I'd greatly appreciate it."
This will be much, much more effective than a generic request such as "I'd like to meet people who have properties to rent." Vague referral requests like that will get you lots of bad referrals - if they get you any referrals at all.
Tip #2: Don't forget about strategic partners
The only thing better than getting a personal introduction to a new customer is getting a personal introduction to someone who can send you lots of new customers - i.e., a strategic partner. Unfortunately, all too often people in local networking groups tend to focus only on asking for referrals to new customers. This is probably because referrals to strategic partners take more time and energy before they result in cash flow. Don't miss out on this potential gold mine for new customers. Ask members of your local networking group for referrals to strategic partners, or better yet, join a group that already has a few potential strategic partners in it.
Tip #3: Use your group to help promote your content
Sometimes, it might be hard for other members of a group to refer business to you, but they might be able to help you out in other ways. For example, let's say you have a blog that you post an educational article to at least once or twice a month. Why not ask your fellow members to share it on their personal Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, or LinkedIn profiles? Typical good groups of local networking groups have between 20-30 people. If each of those people has a few hundred "friends" on Facebook, and even half of them share your article with their followers, you'll get tons of free exposure, at least a few clicks to your website, and - with a little bit of luck - maybe even a new customer or two. BUT…please don't do this if you've just joined a group. It's a 'Give and Take' situation. Be prepared to ‘Give' before you wish to ‘Take'.
Tip #4: Have members of your group write you a review (and vice versa)
Positive online reviews for a local business on sites like Google, Yelp, and Facebook are very important, but getting them from customers can be a challenge. Once you have gotten to know members of your local networking group fairly well, ask if they'd be willing to write you a review or LinkedIn recommendation from the perspective of a business associate. In some cases, this can be even more powerful than a review from a customer, because it's coming from someone who has a long-term relationship with you. Of course, when you make this request you should offer to do the same for them in return.
Tip #5: Use your networking group to help your customers
This last tip will apply more to B2B businesses than B2C businesses. For those of you who have clients who are small business owners, think about who in your local networking group might be a potential customer for them. Then, invite them to attend a meeting with you as your guest and introduce them to that member. It may or may not lead to a new customer for them, but even if it doesn't, they'll probably appreciate the fact that you are thinking about them and trying to help them out. Who knows—if they're impressed by your group, they may even become a member and turn into a source of referrals for you and the other members! One of the key things to a successful networking group is NEW blood inside the group. It makes life interesting and allows the group to evolve as you see new business owners and potential clients and customers walk through the doors.
Now that you know how to get the most out of local business networking groups, it's time to take action. Make a commitment to find a group in your area and pay them a visit sometime within the next month. Don't be shy about reaching out - these groups LOVE visitors and treat them like royalty because they know that every visitor is either a potential customer or referral source for them. Just contact the group leader or visit the website and let them know you'd like to visit the group, and they'll let you know what to do.
If you're already a member of a local networking group and aren't using all of the above ideas, then start! Just don't be surprised if other members of your group start copying you once they see what great results you're getting.
Marc Ford, Business Coach, who doesn't sell 287 step marketing plans and isn't a millionaire.