The Green Sheet Online Edition
August 25, 2008 • Issue 08:08:02
It really isn't what you know
When preparing annual marketing plans and programs, too many of us forget to include one essential ingredient in the marketing mix: networking. Networking basically means connecting with other people so they can help promote your company and boost your sales, and vice versa.
Networking used to mean joining local chambers, associations and business groups and being physically present at their meetings and functions: Meet and greet, exchange business cards, call once in awhile, and consider yourself networked. It wasn't easy; it wasn't fast. It required an investment of money, time and energy. It also required good social skills. But it was a proven, widely used marketing tool.
Today, of course, that has changed. The Internet has opened up countless avenues for us to accomplish networking objectives on a much grander scale, often without even leaving our desks.
And what are those objectives? They are the same as they have always been: to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with other business people, as well as with potential clients or customers. To be "mutually beneficial" in this context, relationships must increase business revenue, either fairly quickly through recruiting a new client, for example, or longer term through learning a new business skill or developing connections that can lead to cost-savings.
To accomplish these goals, one must take advantage of new and old business networking opportunities, including the newer e-networking avenues commonly referred to as social networking.
Social networking has been around forever. It's the simple act of expanding the number of people you know by meeting your friends' friends, their friends' friends and their friends' friends' friends. How we do that has changed enormously in the last few years.
You've certainly heard of MySpace.com (www.myspace.com). Launched in 2003 by MySpace Inc., it isn't the first Web site to take social networking online. But it is one of the best known and most successful: It has 180,000 new users every day and twice the traffic of Google.
Popular with 16- to 25-year-olds, MySpace's main competition is Facebook (www.facebook.com), another site popular with college students and home to more than 30 billion page views a month. Both MySpace and Facebook take social networking to state-of-the-art levels.
They allow people to form "communities" of those with similar interests. So students getting ready to attend Harvard, for instance, can "meet" other new students, as well as learn from previously enrolled students about the relative quality of different dorms, food halls, professors and so forth.
Online social networks allow users to expand resources exponentially, connecting to far more people and information than ever possible before the Internet. This is why mature adults, too, are taking advantage of social networks. They are logging on to sites like Google's Orkut, Plaxo Inc.'s Pulse and, my personal favorite, LinkedIn, a project of LinkedIn Corp.
Create a profile on LinkedIn, and the site will connect you to those you knew in high school and college, those you worked with at previous jobs, and those who know the people you know or knew.
LinkedIn's advertising feature lets you recruit new hires, and there is even a function that allows you to see what others say about you or about someone you are thinking of linking to. LinkedIn is a great way to renew old relationships and form new ones that can help you grow your business.
Business networking differs from social networking, though the end goals are the same. The best business networking groups operate as exchanges of business information, ideas and support.
Many of the traditional forms of business networking are still widely practiced and potentially productive. We still form alliances with local chambers and associations and use their meetings to network with other attendees. We make the rounds at industry tradeshows to maintain visibility and reinforce connections.
We join professional organizations, read newsletters and job postings, and stay in touch with graduates of our high school and college alma maters - all because the shared communities give us a reason to stay in touch and widen our resource base.
The Internet also offers us opportunities to locate, or even start, networking groups that will generate new contacts with very little effort or expense. One of my favorites is Meetup Inc.'s Meetup (www.meetup.com). It is both a social and business networking site. You simply type in an interest and a location, and the site will find you local meetings that meet your interests.
For instance, search for "business owners" or "entrepreneurs" in your community, and you'll likely find a Meetup group. You can even drill down to look for restaurant owners or veterinarians. Each Meetup group has a landing page that describes the group, its goals and objectives, and the time and place of meetings. There is also an easy place to sign up for groups or register to attend a specific meeting.
Remember to join groups that encourage networking, provide opportunities to present your products and services, and enable you to develop a resource or referral base. For a small fee, Meetup will also let you create your own group. Consider starting a "before you start your new business" group that includes presentations from accountants, marketers and, yes, a credit card service.
Essentially, blogs are online chats that are typically connected to a network community. Participating in these chats is an excellent way to meet others and get your name out to those working in, or interested in, your industry. When a chat features a guest speaker, it is even more likely to attract those serious about the subject at hand.
Make a note of frequent contributors to your favorite blogs; these individuals are likely active in the industry and might just make you a featured speaker or presenter at another blog or industry event.
Use your staff
Last, but certainly not least, is the most obvious yet most overlooked asset: your employees. If your company comprises outgoing, committed individuals with a positive outlook about the way you do things, these people can be your greatest marketing resource.
Every employee visits restaurants, shops, dry cleaners and gas stations. Each has his or her own network of friends, family and business connections. Show your employees how to turn these contacts into productive resources, and reward them for doing so.
You'll be surprised at what you might find: new customers, service providers and contacts, and an office filled with workers who better understand your business and are much more excited about promoting it.
At SignaPay, we give all our employees $100 for each merchant they refer, and the employee with the most referrals in a month gets a day off. All of us share the excitement of the competition, and all of us benefit. As will you. Nancy Drexler is the Vice President, Marketing for SignaPay Ltd., an ISO headquartered in Dallas. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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