Networking: Two-way word-of-mouth advertising, repeated many times.
The above definition may seem oversimplified, because a large part of networking is more active than just advertising, but essentially, you are exchanging information.
What makes networking effective is an understanding that good actions beget good actions in return. When you can help someone fulfill a need, doing so is a good action. That good action toward them makes them not only willing, but eager to provide a good action toward you.
Networking bears a striking resemblance to a barter system. You earn credit by helping as many people as you can to fulfill needs, and then when you have a need, all those people in your network(s) will help you fulfill it.
Of course, the needs we are talking about are products and services. If you are an accountant, you cannot possibly locate everyone who needs accounting services all on your own. Nor, if you need an air conditioning repair service, can you find the best service for a cost you can afford just by calling a half-dozen and asking them. Networking solves both these problems.
Everyone networks. All it means is you know someone, he mentions he needs a mechanic, and if you know a mechanic you can recommend, you tell him. You say you need a plumber, and he tells you the plumber he used and liked. See? Two-way word-of-mouth advertising. The more people you know and share information with, the bigger your network.
Networking companies go to lengths to formally bring people together, giving them a chance to get to know each other and potentially help each other, in exchange for dues or attendance fees or both. As with any kind of business, some of these companies are more successful than others. Should you join a networking company, and if so, which one?
It depends on your business. If your business has a widespread local market, then yes, you probably should attend an introductory meeting (the first one or two are usually free to newcomers) and find out what it is about. You might want to try several local networking groups to find out which you are most comfortable with.
The owner of a very specialized or technical business with a specific and known potential clientele (e.g., airplane electrical system repairs) can probably spend his promotional time and money more wisely than by joining a networking company, but he should definitely make an effort to widen his network within the whole airplane repair community. Which brings us to social or internet networking.
Social networking for promotional purposes is a high investment of time for a low return, if you do it yourself. There are companies that specialize in running social network campaigns for businesses, and some of them have proven to be very effective in generating leads. They have the time and know-how to focus on building a social network specific to your potential clientele. But such social networking is not two-way, except when someone contacts your business with an inquiry. So social networking as a promotional activity is more like advertising. Useful, but a topic for another time.
Internet networking, however, is extremely useful when there is a fairly focused industry spread across the country. Say you have started a small winery. You would be well advised to join internet groups, not only of potential direct clients, such as restaurateurs and wine societies, but related industries, like tourism and exporting. Make intelligent or appreciative comments on posts in their forums, start discussions, and build your own groups, mentioning your website with your signature whenever possible. You will meet people whom you can help and who can help you.
Networking, whether in person or on the internet, does not (usually) produce overnight results, but the results grow steadily and are long-term, so the investment is worth it if you are in the game for the long haul.
Don Dewsnap is the author of Small Business Magic, published by Oak Wand Publishing. Small Business Magic details the principles of quality necessary to business success, applying to all aspects of business from production to sales. The principles of quality are not well known, and almost never applied to their full potential.