How do you make the most of your networking opportunities?

A small business' network is a referral machine. How do you make sure you're making the most of every opportunity that comes your way? Here's what small business owners are doing.
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For a small business, a solid network can be a source of quality referrals, great advice, and lifelong business partnerships. Most small business owners we chat with attend multiple conferences, networking meet-ups, social groups to further develop their networks. But having access to a network is meaningless if you're not building strong, genuine relationships with members of the network. Here's what our small business leaders are doing to make sure they optimize every network opportunity.

Send a "Thank you" email within the first hour after a great conversation.

For a majority of our small business owners, following up promptly with a good network opportunity is key. A strong network partner is your foot in the door, or that introduction to a new potential customer that you needed. From personal experience, they tend to be great friends and mentors too!

Shane shared a great tip: send a Thank You email, and send it quick.

"I follow-up right after meeting someone for the 1st time with a Thank You email and then I try to set up a 1-on-1 face-to-face meeting as soon as possible to get to know the person and their business better (I don't try selling my services but I will tell them about what I do but not until I have found out about theirs 1st and only if they ask me questions)."

- Shane Copeland,  970VIP

This has a double impact. Why?

Thank You emails have one of the highest open rates of all the "cold" emails that you can send. One study saw a 67% open rate for Thank You emails (regular email campaigns average about a 13% open rate). Mailchimp (the email marketing tool) also found that email subject lines that include the keywords "Thank You" have the most significant positive impact on open rates, relative to other word pairs.

On top of encouraging your new networking lead to engage by opening your email, sending a Thank You email quickly goes a long way when it comes to staying front-of-mind. The general rule of thumb is to follow up within an hour -- past that first hour,  you are 10x less likely to get an engagement.

So if you've spent time and energy making a connection with a new networking opportunity, don't let that effort go to waste by missing your follow ups. Thank them, and be quick about it!

Use a mental game to keep networking fun and help overcome any jitters!

Networking can be exhausting, and for more introverted folks, it can also feel a little nerve-wracking. I'll let Natalie tell her own story, but my challenge for those who dislike networking: make a game of it the way Natalie did!

"In networking, I use an unusual strength to overcome my weaknesses. In the early days of my business, I couldn't afford to travel and attend a lot of flagship events in my field, so I needed to make the most of very few opportunities. I was also often nervous to go blazing up to folks in a crowd and introduce myself. The way I tackled these challenges was to come up with a way to leverage an unusual strength. As a child I was great at the visual card-matching game called "Memory," and I decided to play a giant game of Memory in the real world.

I used to use my computer's address book to log the photos and relevant details of people in my field I would most like to meet and work with - I'd really get to know their face and their work. I would add to and review this regularly over weeks, months, and even years. (Now I can do this with LACRM's shiny new contact photo feature!) Then when I was at the few big events I attended, I played my game. I had to find a "match" between a person in my contacts list and a face in the crowd. When I did the elation of finding a match overcame any trepidation I felt approaching them. I still play this game (now at many more events!) to this day."

- Natalie Settles,  Natalie Settles Studios LLC

Identify the types of networks you have: operational, personal, and strategic; diversify across those networks.

There are three main forms of networking: operational, personal, and strategic:

Operational networking is your internal network; your team. The goal of building and enhancing this network is to make sure work is done efficiently and smoothly. These relationships are kept up with frequent communication and shared goals.

Personal networking is your network to further your own personal and professional goals. These are the folks you connect with to learn more about other industries, other professional domains. They give you new perspectives that can help you be a better leader, manager, or employee. Your personal networks are the ones with the greatest referral potential because they expand your reach the most.

Strategic networking is your network of mentors, higher-ups and stakeholders, and they help you figure out your future priorities and challenges to give you a long-term perspective. They may overlap with your personal network, but they have the added advantage of being empowered to take action within your business.

"When challenged to move beyond their functional specialties and address strategic issues facing the overall business, many managers do not immediately grasp that this will involve relational—not analytical—tasks.

While our managers differed in how well they pursued operational and personal networking, we discovered that almost all of them underutilized strategic networking.

Effective leaders learn to employ networks for strategic purposes."

- How Leaders Create and Use Networks,  Harvard Business Review

A powerful network contains individuals from all three categories -- you want to be able to work efficiently (a strong operational network), you want to be able learn from other industries (a strong personal network), and you want to be able to anticipate challenges before they arise (a strong strategic network).

Evaluate your network: are you missing anything?

Build a genuine relationship focused on mutual support; contribute even when you have nothing to gain.

Strong network partnerships emerge when the both of you have something to contribute to the business relationship: advice, referrals, feedback, or even a shared client.

At its core, you want to create a mutually beneficial relationship when you network with someone. There is no immediate sale to be made, but ideally, the both of you will leave the conversation knowing exactly how the other can support your personal or professional goals.

"Make a genuine effort to listen to contacts and learn more about them. Offer assistance, and see how you can help them achieve their goals. When your knowledge can help other individuals be more successful, they’re going to value their relationship with you more. Be useful and offer support, without any expectation of getting something in return."

- Stephanie Baldwin,  SoftSmiths

We value most the relationships that have helped us. It goes that when you help others, they will value your relationship with them the same way.

"The best networkers do [not wait until they need something badly]: They take every opportunity to give to, and receive from, the network, whether they need help or not."

- How Leaders Create and Use Networks,  Harvard Business Review

All of our tips today came directly from readers and contributors to our Small Business Community Tips newsletter. This is a newsletter community for small business owners and employees to ask questions and get answers from their peers. If you like what you've read and would like to contribute questions and tips, and read more future issues, click here to join the newsletter.

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