Some people say it's impossible to do business as an SME unless you get involved with face-to-face networking as well as online networking via social media. Others say you can ignore networking events altogether and drum up business through regular marketing, advertising, SEO and social media networking, never meeting your fellow small business owners face to face.
We know plenty of both types of people, those who spend time at events and those who have never attended an event but still manage to run thriving, growing businesses. So it looks like face-to-face networking isn't a must, it's a choice. That makes sense since for all sorts of reasons, not least because businesses don't always sell on a B2B basis. If you deal direct with consumers there isn't always a lot of benefit in meeting a load of B2B business owners, unless you want to buy their services.
If you choose to network, what's the best type of business networking group for small businesses, and how do you make the most of the opportunity?
What's the best network for you?
The thing is, every business networking group has its own unique feel. It's more a matter of trial and error than anything else, which means attending a few events as a guest – if that's possible – and checking out how they feel, how they suit your personality and your way of working.
Some business networking events are very formal. They involve attendees standing up and speaking for five minutes, making formal presentations to the group. Then handing out business cards. Others are extremely informal, for example the Brighton Business Curry Club, where there isn't a presentation in sight – great if you'd rather eat worms than speak in public. Instead everyone enjoys a curry and a drink, and networks informally at their own pace. Which type of event would you feel most comfortable joining?
Some networks make you actually join for several weeks or months, or even pay for annual membership, which means you feel obliged to turn up every time. Others let you come along once without obligation, enjoying a one-off experience whenever you fancy it. Some are free to attend, others charge. Some have a particular sector or industry focus, others are very general. Some B2B network events have more than one business in each sector in attendance, others insist on just the one so you're not competing with anyone else in your field. Some are held at breakfast, at horrible o'clock in the morning, others are held in the evening – are you a night owl or an early bird? It all matters.
It also helps to first figure out what you want out of the experience. Is it simply general support from the local SME community, people in the same boat who have the same kind of experiences and can offer advice and insight? Or do you actually want to sell your wares to local business owners? They're very different propositions. Now and then a network comes along that actually facilitates both.
13 essential ways to make the most of small business networking events
1.Prepare yourself in advance so you know exactly what you're going to do and exactly what you want to achieve at the event – it's much more businesslike than just turning up and seeing what happens
2.Set three achievable goals for the event rather than overburdening yourself
3.Shake hands with everyone you meet, and make it good and firm. Air kissing might be popular among friends but it isn't the done thing at networking events!
4.Don't just talk about yourself. It's much more powerful when you ask other people loads of questions. Let's face it, we all love to talk about ourselves, so make it happen for your fellow attendees and you'll soon become a go-to networker with a great reputation. Be friendly, smile a lot, be a great listener, put others first and they'll put you first
5.Sit back at first and see how things pan out – then join in once you've 'got' the personality of the event and can harness it to your best advantage
6.If you can, find out who'll be there beforehand so you can target your efforts in a sensible, positive direction
7.If you're a reserved person who finds meeting crowds of new people tough, prepare first with a little script you can use to introduce yourself and what you do. It takes a lot of the pressure off
8.When you try to connect other people rather than focusing on yourself and expecting them to connect with you, amazing things can happen – so be a connector
9.Don't relentlessly push your products or services, unless that's exactly what's expected of you at the event
10.Don't steam in and hurl your business card at everyone who crosses your path – take it easy, be sociable and be a little more choosy
11.This sounds a bit sneaky but it's actually just basic psychology... because people tend to gravitate towards people they're similar to, something called similarity attraction, it makes sense to point out those similarities when you meet, a good way to help seal a cordial and productive relationship
12.More psychology – mirroring someone else's posture, body language and gestures has an incredibly strong positive effect on how they feel about you, helping you build a better relationship from the start
13.Take notes – there's no way you'll remember everything, and note taking makes it look like you're suitably serious about networking as well as genuinely valuing what others are saying
Bear all this in mind and you should be able to find the perfect network for your character, one that'll dovetail with your business and goals, be a pleasure to attend and deliver exactly what you expect of it. Happy networking! At Sussex Business Bureau we can help you grow your business too. see business Support services for more information.