No, this isn’t an advice column for singles. (Although I am single and could probably write a really good advice column at this point.)
Instead, the goal of this article is to help you find some good places for networking. While social media is a powerful networking and sales tool, there’s also a tremendous amount of value in meeting people face-to-face. And the best way to meet lots of people in person is by getting involved with groups.
While there are all kinds of business and non-business organizations that you can join, they can be broken down into five basic categories:
1. Trade Associations
No matter what you do, there’s an organization of people who do it. Whether you’re a salesperson, sales manager, small business owner or CEO, there are organizations of people with your job function or who are in the same industry you are.
Professional or trade associations give you an opportunity to network with your peers. While they won’t become customers, there are still several advantages to knowing them better.
You can discuss industry challenges and learn from their experiences. You can refer or contract out business when you are overwhelmed, or when your customers want something you can’t provide. (The competitors you refer will likely return the favor.) You might even go further and develop strategic partnerships to increase your capabilities or to handle work that no single company could manage on its own.
A completely different strategy is to join the trade associations of your target markets. Most organizations allow “associate” or “vendor” members. By joining, you get an excellent opportunity to network with your best prospects. The relationships you build will be stronger than any marketing piece your competition can create.
2. General Interest Business Groups
These organizations are open to virtually anyone, so you may find competitors as well as prospects within them. The best-known and most common are Chambers of Commerce, which exist at the local, state and national levels. Some Chambers are geared towards women, while others may have a racial or ethnic focus. For example, there are Black, Asian, Hispanic, Indian and many other Chambers.
Other general interest business organizations include the National Federation of Independent Businesses, American Business Women’s Association, International Franchise Association and National Association of Women Business Owners. These organizations host all kinds of networking activities, as well as seminars, trade shows and other events.
3. Lead-Sharing Groups
These groups, which go by various names (referral groups, tip clubs, resource groups), exist for the sole purpose of networking for sales purposes. Members are expected to generate leads for other members on a regular basis. For that reason, membership is limited to one company per industry, i.e. one lawyer, one printer, one florist, one insurance agent, etc.
Meetings are typically weekly or bi-weekly over breakfast. Be aware, these groups are serious and require a real commitment on your part. Members can be expelled for missing too many meetings or not providing enough referrals.
4. Service Clubs
The purpose of organizations such as Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, Optimists, Jaycees and Knights of Columbus is to provide some type of volunteer service to local communities. But great networking is a happy by-product of organized service. If your focus is in the right place—that is, the goals of the group—then people will naturally want to do business with you.
Like lead-sharing groups, service clubs usually meet weekly or biweekly, although it may be for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Also like lead-sharing groups, they often enforce attendance requirements, so understand the commitment involved.
5. Special Interest Groups
Finally, there are a host of other organizations whose purpose is not business-oriented, yet provide excellent networking opportunities. They include Toastmasters International, alumni associations, your child’s PTA, and your local homeowners association. As with service clubs, focus on the business of the group, rather than your business.
With any and all of these groups, several rules apply: Check them out before you join to make sure the group is a good fit for you. After you have written your membership check, attend meetings and events regularly. And to get the biggest return on your investment, raise your profile and credibility by volunteering for projects and committees.
Above all, remember that networking is not the same as selling. While it is part of the sales process, networking is simply meeting people and building relationships with them. It’s getting to know them and letting them get to know you. Basically, it’s about making friends. And you can do that anywhere.