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If you’re feeling the pinch of a sluggish economy in your small business, yes even as a consultant to small businesses; you realize the importance of generating new business. Times have changed and gone are the days of schmoozing with a potential client on the links of your favorite country club. These days it’s more an attitude of mutual benefit and value added service that brings businesses together.

Business networking in general is considered a much more budget friendly alternative to advertising or public relations campaigns. It can present a face to the community that makes it easier for your business to grow as you become more recognized. It also allows you to express your USP or unique selling proposition with a personal touch that can only be experienced with face to face meetings.

Today that frugal approach becomes necessary and business networking is a way for small to medium sized businesses to come together with other likeminded business people in their communities and stimulate the economy right in their own local areas. Whether you join an established group such as the Chamber of Commerce or BNI® or start your own grass roots effort to stimulate the economy in your very own neighborhood, the opportunity to meet and share experiences and referrals amongst each other becomes a valuable and treasured resource.

Some networking groups have fairly rigid guidelines that stimulate activity between members, while others are more a gathering of people ready to make a personal commitment to other members on a more community based model of barter and/or mutual benefit, as well as referring leads. Whichever type of group resonates with your business and personal values and principles is the one that you should align yourself with.

Many times, relationships are formed from these larger networking groups that prove to be more valuable than your highest expectations. Strategic alliances and synchronistic relationships happen when you give yourself the opportunity to enjoy opportunity.
In this chapter we’ll discuss some of the traditional sources for business networking and then we’ll also touch on some newer methods that have the potential to generate leads and prospects on a more perpetual basis. Having the ability to generate your own leads for your business is key to sustaining your business through even the darkest of economic times.

The Chamber Of Commerce

A chamber of commerce (also referred to in some circles as a board of trade) is a form of business network, e.g., a local organization of businesses whose goal is to further the interests of businesses.
*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chamber_of_commerce

Chambers of Commerce can oversee anywhere from a single neighborhood or type of business to huge national organizations numbering well into six figures in its members. Because Chambers of Commerce are regionally based, most of their interests and operations lie in protecting the rights of businesses in their area.

While there are dues to join your local Chamber, you’ll no doubt see a return on your investment with your first referal. By presenting yourself at chamber gatherings (with a pocket full of business cards) and mingling with other business owners, you can begin to casually discover what and where their business and yours can work together.

Most chambers are also constantly looking for speakers for their networking events and monthly meetings. Volunteering to speak about how you can help these other businesses realize a better ROI for their advertising dollar, or how they could capture and retain more customers can lead to even MORE business for you.

BNI® or Business Network International

BNI proclaims itself to be “the world’s largest referral organization”. That claim might be challenged by some of today’s Internet based social networks, but we’ll talk about that in a minute.

Founded in 1985, BNI’s purpose is to promote the building of powerful referral networks. Each chapter only allows one person per business type or “professional classification” and all members must apply and be approved in order to be accepted.

The philosophy behind BNI® is that each member is expected to concentrate on giving referrals to the others in the group, building business relationships and in turn receiving referrals as well.

To BNI® there is a difference between a referral and a lead. A lead is merely the contact information of a prospect while a referral happens only if/when the prospect has expressed interest in the product or service being offered by another member.

Other Business Networking Groups

There are also many other groups, some regional, some national or international that are great venues for gathering business contacts and referrals. Groups like the Lions, Rotary, Jaycees, the Masons and many others foster support for each other’s businesses. Civic, religious, and social groups are all good places to build relationships of this type.
The Jaycees in fact begin supply young adults of 18+ the tools they need to build the bridges of success for themselves in the areas of business development, management skills, individual training, community service, and international connections.

BBB or Better Business Bureau

The BBB is not like the Chamber of Commerce in that it doesn’t advocate and support businesses directly. In fact, its goal is to foster a fair and effective marketplace, so that buyers and sellers can trust each other. Being a member in good standing with the BBB shows your good faith and intent toward your clients, customers and the general public.

Whichever combination of social or civic groups you choose to align yourself with, there is also a powerful way that you can establish yourself as an expert in your area and your field of work.

Business and social gatherings are useful for building relationships and garnering leads and referrals. Eventually you may want to generate your own leads and prospects with a more targeted approach.

Creating Seminars locally – Using the local resources to drive traffic

By sponsoring seminars in your area and educating your fellow business owners, you’re able to show them how valuable and imperative a well designed and implemented Internet strategy is to their business. You’ll be able to show them how they can realize a better return on their advertising budgets by allotting a portion of that money to Internet strategies.

At the same time, they’ll also realize that even as they recognize the need for the strategies you describe, they have neither the time nor education to carry them out for themselves.

Through educating them you become the expert and by servicing their needs you become a trusted business partner.

Entrepreneur Magazine http://www.entrepreneur.com/marketing/marketingideas/article83558-1.html suggests that sponsoring seminars is among the top things that you can do to bring in new business.

What Does The Business Owner Need?

•        A Well Engineered and Designed Site
•        Design, SEO, Customer Oriented, Call to Action,  Value Added Content
•        Means of Driving Traffic to the Site
•        Adwords, AdSense, Ad Sales, Article Marketing, etc…
•        Means of Tracking and Analyzing Visitors
•        Google Analytics or Deeper Tools
•        Means to Capture ID’s of Visitors
•        Opt-ins, Multiple Entries Into Funnel
•        Conventional Opt-in, Contact Us, Request Quote, Newsletter, etc…

Part of your task in educating business owners is to show them that just having “a website” is not going to bring them the traffic and revenue that a well engineered, optimized and designed site will. The way that you help the local businesses in your area is by providing them with the means to either educate themselves or allow you to assist them.

Do Your Homework

When you schedule your weekly or monthly seminars, be sure that you’re pre-selling them. Whether you’re using direct mail, radio promotions, surveys or any other type of interest gathering tactic, you want to control who will attend your events.

Even if you’re giving them at no cost you’ll want to know how many will be attending. By knowing who you’ll have in the seats and who your audience will be you have the opportunity to assess their sites (if they have one) even before you speak to them. This way you can have immediate actionable steps to offer them that can bring a very fast change to their site’s ranking.

Something as simple as looking at the source code of their site and optimizing that to more directly reflect the site’s intent can make a big difference.

It’s also a great jumping off point for your conversation with each of them. By showing them that these tags are actually the sign that hangs out there for Google and the other search engines to read. They’re even more important to the way a site looks (in the eyes of the search engines).

Your attendees will each feel an immediate sense of that personal touch that makes doing business a pleasure.

Webinars and other on-line potential meeting places

In today’s busy world and with schedules being as they are, one option for networking with and educating your potential clients and customers is to use webinars. Webinars, in case you don’t know are seminars that are held in an Internet venue and are quite interactive. You can gauge your attendees interest level, allow them to ask questions and be active in other activities as well, such as surveys.

Webinars serve a number of purposes. First of all they are lead gathering machines. Anyone that has an interest in attending your webinar must first share their name and e-mail address with you. Depending on the nature of your business and the content of your webinar, it may be appropriate to ask for more information such as their own website address or contact phone number.

Many business owners are already somewhat Internet savvy. That is, they may have a Facebook or MySpace page. Some may even be listed in some of the professional networking sites such as LinkedIn, etc…

What many of today’s consultants are doing is managing the Social Networking aspect of their clients businesses. Getting your local business listed in some of the national and international directories is essential to the appearance of that business as being ready to do commerce with the world, even if your target market is the south end of town.

Forums

Another wonderful resource to tap for interacting and networking with other business folks is to seek out the on-line hang outs of those people. Whatever line of work your customer is in, there are no doubt many Internet forums that are visited frequently by folks interested in that business too.

By applying the same strategies of Internet marketing to your client’s business and exposing their business in the same way that you would bring a product to market, you can ensure that there will be excitement surrounding your client’s business.

If you’re so inclined you could start a forum of your own and become the on-line gathering place where these conversations are taking place. By offering your technical advice and expertise to local business in a safe environment like a forum you can further establish yourself amongst your peers and fellow business owners as the “resident expert” and someone who is very approachable to them.

Be creative in your approach to networking and create opportunities if and where they don’t already exist for you. Make your own way and write your own story.

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