Network to New Heights
Long before the term referred to computers, "networking" described a process whereby business owners could promote their companies to colleagues and potential clients. The U.S. Small Business Administration, in fact, defines the word as "a planned event or gathering with the primary goal of connecting with others." This interaction traditionally has occurred in relaxed, social settings, but emergence of cyber-technology has opened doors to entirely new opportunities.
To hobnob these days, savvy business owners can join professional and civic organizations, volunteer for good causes or take full advantage of electronic tools such as e-mail, Web conferencing and Webinars. Since they spend so much time working solo, (or with only one or two staffers), networking is particularly critical for home-based entrepreneurs.
Groups Can Bolster Business
Likely the easiest way to launch a networking campaign is to join an industry association, professional group or civic organization. Besides providing a venue for socializing with other professionals and business owners, members typically come together to support and promote each others' interests. The list that follows offers several solid options:
Chambers of Commerce
A federation of more than 3 million businesses nationwide and in 94 countries, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce advocates for the free enterprise sector in government, judicial and regulatory levels. Roughly 96 percent of its membership includes companies with fewer than 100 employees.
Closer to home, city, county or regional Chambers of Commerce provide a wealth of networking alternatives from workshops and seminars, to ribbon-cuttings, "after-hours" gatherings and galas. The idea behind these events, of course, is to promote fellowship while doing business.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Web site (www.uschamber.com) includes direct links to accredited chapters nationwide and around the world, as well as information about its many programs and initiatives.
Organizations related to particular industries can be a big help when it comes to making valuable connections within one's own discipline. Besides offering educational, career and even financial support, many groups (e.g. The National Association of Tax Professionals, the American Bar Association) sponsor local and regional chapters; and most provide regular networking opportunities, including national and state conferences and events.
Visit the Internet Public Library (www.ipl.org) for a comprehensive list of thousands of industry associations and consortiums.
Professional Networking Groups
A phenomenon that has exploded in the last few years, professional networking clubs, consisting of one member per business genre, get together on a regular basis to exchange "leads" on potential clients and customers. The rationale, according to most experts, is to increase contact opportunities for members, as well as to strengthen connections in the business community at large.
The most reputable groups meet weekly, usually for breakfast or lunch, and screen potential members for sound business practices and ethics. Membership generally (but not always) is by invitation only, though an Internet search can provide more information on specific requirements for local groups.
While promoting one's business is not a valid reason to join a civic organization per se, most public relations experts agree it's a fine way to establish a positive community profile and do good work at the same time.
Groups such as Rotary International (www.rotary.org), the world's first service club organization, and Lions Clubs International (www.lionsclubs.org) are dedicated to improving local, national and world conditions. That said, the membership of these groups invariably consists of community leaders, with weekly meetings and regular events providing numerous opportunities for fellowship.
Complete lists of local and regional civic organizations of all kinds are available through area Chambers of Commerce. An online search for individual, city, county state and national organizations also is an effective way to assess available opportunities.
Volunteering for a favorite charity not only helps those in need, but it also exposes community-spirited home-business owners to potential clients. Agencies supporting abused women and children, homeless people, senior citizens, persons with disabilities, neglected animals and a host of other causes are too numerous to include here.
Visit the United Way's Web site (www.liveunited.org) for links to local chapters of member organizations, as well as for listings of volunteer opportunities.
Electronic Networking: Click to Communicate
Increasingly sophisticated tech tools have opened the way to interact with others without leaving the comfort or safety of the home office. Used in adjunct with "real-life" social/professional events, functions such as mass e-mail campaigns, Web conferencing and Webinars allow business owners to network with any colleague or potential client even when they live half-a-world away.
Mass e-mail campaigns enable business owners to reach the greatest number of potential clients or customers inexpensively, quickly and efficiently. Still, experts point out that effective use of this networking tool requires a degree of technical preparedness, as well as practical knowledge. Here are some tips to make the job easier:
Purchase the right software. Programs that create and manage lists, generate reports, provide design elements and track responses start for less than $50.
Make an e-mail list. Target current customers, colleagues, trade show/conference attendees, former classmates and persons new to the area. Check with potential recipients prior to adding their names and incorporate a subscribe/unsubscribe box in every mailing.
Make e-mail content fun, interesting and valuable. Introduce specials, rebates, sweepstakes and other tempting offers to entice new customers and reward loyalty.
Invite recipients to visit the company Web site. Also include complete contact information, such as a business address and telephone number, to underscore credibility.
Track responses. Doing so allows business owners to monitor and assess the most effective e-mail strategies.
A Web conference is a video meeting held over the Internet. Attendees from any location make contact through Web applications or downloaded software. The advantages to this brand of networking (as opposed to traditional videoconferencing) are the capability of collaborative Web browsing and the ease of application sharing and file transfers.
A form of Web conferencing, Webinars permit business owners to present workshops, classes or lectures via the Internet. These may take the form of one-way Webcasts or can be interactive between the viewers and presenters.
A valuable networking function for long-distance or large audiences, the Webinar enables home-business owners to showcase services and products in a professional setting, at the same time placing them in a position of authority.
For a Webinar to be a truly effective networking event, PR experts stress that it is critical to: plan ahead; publicize the Webcast (how to choose a professional decorating scheme) rather than the product (office furniture); follow a structured agenda; and make the presentation worth the viewers' time investment.