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Networking That Nets the Fish You Want

Unless you're excruciatingly shy, networking represents a prime method of landing new clients and customers and attracting business opportunites. But misunderstandings about what networking can accomplish and how you can best go about it abound.


Networking involves becoming acquainted with business contacts one on one or in a group. Over time, it enables you to build a web of contacts and visibility among a pool of potential buyers of your products and services. Compared with advertising or direct mail, marketing by networking costs next to nothing. It's a terrific method of prospecting when you have time but little money to spare. Networking leverages your personal presence into business income -- so long as you do it wisely.

Effective networking begins with choosing the right "pond" in which to "go fish." This might sound obvious, but over and over again I've seen people spending time at the wrong meetings, then complaining that networking didn't work for them. Concentrate on attending meetings of groups that your potential clients -- not your peers -- belong to. If you're an accountant, this means the Chamber of Commerce rather than the Association of Bay Area Accountants. If you own a limousine company, schmooze with corporate executives, not with others in the transportation industry.


Those who aren't in the habit of attending meetings often don't realise just how many opportunities to schmooze with your target market there are in the area. Usually you can find listings of business meetings open to the public in your local business paper -- not the local newspaper, but the weekly, biweekly or monthly paper published for the business community. Ask at your local library or newsstand if you're not familiar with the business paper in your area.

For instance, in just one issue of the Boston Business Journal, you can read about meetings of groups ranging from The Public-Sector Architects Committee (contractors might want to check that out) to the Environmental Business Council of New England (attention, environmental lawyers!) to the Neponset Valley Chamber of Commerce (good for local printers, caterers, real estate agents, etc.).


You'll get the most mileage out of attending such networking events if you go prepared with two crucial ingredients. First, you need what some people refer to as an "elevator speech" -- a way of introducing yourself that provokes interest and lasts just the length of time it takes to ride an elevator from the ground floor to the penthouse. Second, you need plenty of business cards, to give out after schmoozing or when people who hear your elevator speech ask how to get in touch with you.


It may take attending several meetings before you get a clear sense of whether or not a group truly contains the people you hope to snag as customers. Apart from that assessment, never expect quick results from networking. Sometimes a perfect connection happens right away, but that's rare. More often people need to meet you on numerous occasions over time until you become etched in their consciousness as the graphic designer, car dealer or computer training firm they want to do business with or recommend to others.

You get the most mileage out of your participation in a professional or business group when you volunteer for committees and positions and become active in the organization. Then you're not just one member of the crowd shaking hands and milling around, but someone who makes announcements and gets his or her picture in the group's newsletter. Contributing articles to the newsletter -- and offering your photo to accompany each piece -- also increases your impact within the group.

Don't go to networking events with a glad-handling selling attitude. That comes across as overbearing. Instead, concentrate on getting to know people who are there, and understand that any business that develops will emerge from your conversations. Being helpful to those you meet can be a great way of making a mark in a group. Suggest people they might want to contact, or resources for their business interests, and over time the effect trickles back to you.


Some organisations offer structured opportunities for exposure to the group, in addition to people getting a chance to stand up and give their "elevator speech." Sometimes people whose business cards have been picked out of a hat receive a few minutes to give a spiel to the entire meeting. Or an organisation can sponsor a meeting, defraying some of the costs in exchange for the right to place promotional items and marketing literature out on all the tables.

When you sponsor a meeting, usually a good percentage of those present take home your mugs, pens, keychains or stress balls and use them afterwards. However, for greatest memorability it helps if you've also stood up in front of the group holding and referring to your giveaway item. In that case they go home with a personal association between you and your company logo and identity, and the gift does its bit for your company over time all the more powerfully.

Through word of mouth, you may hear about "leads clubs" in your area. These consist of groups of perhaps eight to twenty non-competing business owners who make a concerted effort to refer work to fellow members. If you run the kind of business where most people would typically know numerous people needing your product or service, you would probably find a leads club worth your participation.


Whenever anyone you've met networking sends you business, make sure you send a formal "thank you." Fewer people adhere to such courtesies now than in the past, so that you stand out positively when you take the trouble to express gratitude. Depending on the referral, a token gift is often appropriate as well. When that gift -- a T-shirt, a tote bag, a calculator -- is imprinted with your business name and logo, your appreciation further reinforces the memorability of your business.

Marcia Yudkin is Head Stork of Named At Last, which affordably brainstorms creative product names and tag lines for organizations all over the world.
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