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Business networking groups: how to be more productive in less time

© John Kuraoka, a project of www.kuraoka.com

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If youíre a professional service provider, social media and business networking groups can be valuable tools through which to market your services and build your clientele. Hereís an important tip, right at the start: not every business networking group calls itself one. Some of the most-productive groups in which to network are professional associations, civic groups, and hobby clubs. In fact, you can network any time or place people gather: events, seminars, even on airline flights. Don't only do your social marketing online!

The only thing about a regular networking group that makes it a better business-building tool, is the willingness of its members to accept being solicited.

That said, here are a eight quick tips on getting the most out of a networking group.

1. Look for networking groups that resemble your clientele, not yourself. Focusing on networking within their own field is the #1 mistake most professionals make. I see this all the time on social media sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Imagine a group of accountants trying to sell their professional services amongst themselves. All any one of them could hope for, is the occasional specialty or overflow referral. Now imagine an accountant networking in a group of, say, attorneys. Thereís a gold mine of potential work, from servicing the attorneys themselves (setting up payroll and business accounts, tax filings, etc.), to partnering with the attorneys on projects or cases involving financial issues (divorces, forming corporations, taxes, etc.). To find clients, look for networking groups that consist of potential clients.

2. Be visible. That is, donít just attend the meetings or join the online group, be one of the speakers, panelists, or contributors. Indeed, one powerful networking method calls for attending a meeting just once - as the honored guest speaker. Online participation tends to need to be more constant. If, as a new member, you are expected to introduce yourself, take the opportunity to do so in a way that is appropriate to the group, memorable to its members, and relevant to your business. You may want to prepare 5-, 10-, and 15-second introductions - or, online, 10- 25-, and 50-word "personal branding" statements. If youíre a long-time member, itís easy to develop the habit of interacting with the same people all the time. Remember to make an effort to greet and talk to new members, who, after all, are new sources of business for you.

3. At the same time, think carefully before participating in the actual running of the group - serving on committees, contributing services, and so on. In many cases, youíll just expend energy and time building the group instead of your business, and group politics being what they are you may end up making as many enemies as friends. If you must contribute, the donation of tangible goods is less of a political hot potato (and often more-appreciated) than providing your own professional services. For example, if youíre a marketing consultant, provide refreshments, not a free re-make of the membership brochure. Or, find a way to package your service as an individual "product." For example, if youíre a caterer, donít provide monthly refreshments - instead provide the occasional gift basket or treat as a raffle prize or auction item.

4. In any group, there is an “in crowd.” Identify it and dispassionately evaluate whether working your way into it will reap added business for you, over that offered by the group in general. And I donít mean added recognition, but added business. Often, your business (if not your ego) is better served working the periphery of a group than the hub. Consider the likely possibility that the only business making money every month through the networking group meetings, is the meeting facility itself.

5. Give before you ask to receive. Share your knowledge and experiences with others. Good information is your best calling card. If it's a traditional networking group, come to the very first meeting prepared with leads for others. Donít just hand out your leads like free mints. Give them selectively. Look to build relationships with business partners, not just pick up random referrals from a bunch of people. Think of each lead as being an actual $100 bill. Who in the room do you think might return the highest dividend on that investment, in the form of ongoing referrals? Those are the people to whom you give your leads. For a more-targeted approach to selectivity in networking, see the article Tightwad Networking for maximum referrals.

6. Donít discount your rates to members, or at least think long and hard before you do. Your rates should reflect your value. Your professional services are not worth less to someone who responds to your networking than to someone who responds to your advertising. Both networking and advertising are marketing efforts that cost time and money. Remember too, the point of a networking group is to make more money through qualified business referrals, not less money through discounting.

7. Look for information, not just connections. The value of a networking group is multiplied many times over when you look beyond the immediate group, to the extended network of people the members know. Also, look beyond referrals and seek out information. You may be able to pick up valuable tips about potential new business opportunities or gather intelligence about a competitor – but to do so, you have to be open to more than just the next referral.

8. Donít just look for customers, look for ways to get customers. This is related to the last point, about seeking information. Find out how people in other fields are promoting their businesses. Then, consider ways to integrate their successful ideas into your own marketing efforts. Also, be on the lookout for potential partnerships with other businesses in pursuing new customers.

These tips can help you increase the productivity of any networking group, while decreasing time-wasting counter-productivity. When it comes to marketing your professional services through social groups, Tightwad Marketing principles apply to time as well as to charges.
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