Most small business owners would probably agree that networking is an important part of doing business: it creates camaraderie, it increases your exposure, and it can provide leads. But which organization (or organizations) should you choose? This post will discuss a bunch of different options.
1. Business Networking International (BNI)
What it is: Describing itself as “the largest networking organization in the world,” BNI’s model works like this: only one person from a particular industry can be a member of a chapter. So if you’re an accountant and the chapter you want to join already has an accountant, you’ll need to look for a different chapter. Chapters typically meet weekly (usually in the morning before work hours) where members are encouraged to pass referrals to one another. Members are required to attend every meeting, and there is a yearly fee for joining plus potential quarterly dues (varies by chapter).
What sorts of businesses do really well with this networking model? According to BNI’s website, “It is not the occupation, it is the individual. The occupation can be anything. If you’re focused and you have a dream and you’re willing to make a sacrifice, you are the person we want in the group.” That said, businesses that tend to fill chapter seats faster than others include bankers, mortgage brokers, accountants, financial advisors, trades people (handyman, home improvement), and realtors. Like anything else, you get out of it what you put into it, and BNI requires its members to be 100% committed.
Pros: Not just anyone can join. Potential members must fill out an application, which includes references, and a membership committee determines if you’ll be accepted. This vetting process influences the overall quality of the chapters. Successful chapters can pass thousands, even millions, of dollars in referrals every year.
Cons: Early, weekly meetings can be a challenge to make from time to time (BNI does have a “substitute” policy in case you can’t attend a meeting).
2. Local Chambers of Commerce
What it is: These organizations promote the business interests in the towns, cities, or regions they’re associated with, and they go deeper than just providing networking. They tend to provide advocacy, community, and economic development as well. Businesses affiliated with the area can sign up for membership (there is a fee). To find a Chamber of Commerce in your area, search on “chamber of commerce” and your town/city or state.
Pros: The benefits vary from organization to organization, but most (if not all) offer networking opportunities, such as monthly breakfasts and after-hours gatherings, advertising opportunities (e.g. on the website or in Chamber publications, such as newsletters), and access to special events, such as business expos. Local businesses that are active and take part in events can increase their exposure and foster referral opportunities. Again, the more active you are, the more likely you are to reap benefits.
Cons: Attendance at events is not a requirement, which means that your participation needs to be completely self-motivated. You could be a member in good standing (meaning you’ve paid your dues), yet never have attended any sort of event.
3. School Alumni Organizations
What it is: Most colleges and universities have alumni organizations, some more active than others. But these organizations can provide many networking opportunities in a much more relaxed setting (e.g. alums getting together to watch a ball game or to wrap presents for needy kids at Christmas time). Being a graduate of a school usually is your “in” to the organization itself, but some of the various events may cost money.
Pros: Sometimes it’s nice to meet people in a relaxed setting where business networking isn’t the main goal at all. Talking to people in casual settings about who you are and what you do can be a great way to get your message “out there,” but in a less aggressive manner than traditional networking. If you participate in enough events, act professionally (meaning that you DON’T make it all about you), and show genuine interest in what other people do, you will, over time, develop a reputation and likely receive some direct or referral business as a result.
Alumni organizations are also a great way to network if you need help in a specific area—perhaps you’re seeking someone to coach you in public speaking, or maybe you’re looking for a long-term mentor. Alumni programs breed loyalty, and they often have member databases that fellow members can browse to connect with other alums. This can be a great resource for coaching/mentoring needs.
Cons: Compared to BNI and the Chamber, alumni organizations are less formal networking platforms. Business networking isn’t always the primary objective, so you need to get creative in how you approach people.
4. Industry-Specific Groups
What it is: Most industries have professional/trade organizations affiliated with them (e.g. National Association of Home Builders). While these organizations often provide plenty of networking opportunities, this networking isn’t necessarily the same type of networking you do in, say, BNI where the goal is to develop relationships that lead to referrals. This makes sense, considering the members of these sorts of organizations are going to be colleagues rather than potential clients.
For example, in the National Association of Home Builders, about one third of the members are home builders or remodelers. The rest are in “related specialties,” such as housing financiers and manufacturers and suppliers of building materials. There’s usually a fee to join such organizations as well.
Pros: These organizations are a great way for you to keep up with the goings-on within your industry. It’s a great way to meet mentors, learn from others, help others, and share ideas. Remember, not all networking has to lead to sales. Networking that helps you run your business better is just as important.
Cons: If you’re looking to generate leads and referrals, it probably won’t happen here. Also, while national organizations are often strong, individual chapters in states can be hit or miss, depending on how active they are.
5. Community Service Organizations
What it is: Think Rotary International, Kiwanis, Lions Club, etc. These organizations typically bring business and professional leaders together to serve the community in some way.
Pros: It’s a great way to give back to your local community while gaining exposure for yourself and your business (but remember the primary goal is service/giving back—it’s important to keep that in mind). If you become active in one of these groups, people in the community will get to know who you are. They’ll learn about you, what you do, and whether they can trust you. At some point, they might even buy from you, based on their experience with you in these settings.
Cons: As we’ve mentioned above, the biggest “con” with this sort of organization would be if you went in expecting it to do something for you. That’s the not the point of the organization, and it shouldn’t be your motivation for joining. As long as you have the right expectations, joining one of these organizations can have positive effects on you and your business in the long term.
Of course, regardless of the organization you choose, you’ll want to make sure you always have plenty of business cards on you. And it makes sense to consider some other promotional product “staples” like custom pens, key chains, and magnets. Here’s a post we did on five promotional products that will get you noticed.
Need more tips on networking? Here are some of our other articles to check out:
- Rock Your Business Network Meetings
- 6 Tips for Cultivating Strong Business Networking Relationships
- Small Business B2B Marketing Tip: Get Social Over Coffee
Do you belong to any networking groups or professional organizations? What tips and advice do you have for our readers? Share in the comments!