Even if your marketing budget is tight, there’s plenty you can do to build your business. Networking is one of the most cost-effective ways to win new business. Often, it won’t cost you a dime, but to reap the rewards, you have to weave it into your daily business activities.
Here are five types of contacts to make in the coming months.
1. Smart people in other industries
People in other industries can alert you to best practices that you can bring to your own arena.
“It’s about exchanging information,” says Ken Tencer, CEO of Spyder Works, a branding and innovation firm in Toronto and New York. He is co-author of The 90% Rule, which looks at how to evaluate and effectively act on business opportunities.
How do you find the right people to add to your brain trust? Ask yourself who to exchange information with that would benefit yourself and your business, says Tencer. Don’t know many professionals outside of your field? Join a high-level networking group, such as Vistage, that puts you in the same room with CEOs from unrelated industries.
“It really opens your mind,” Tencer says. “It gives you feedback on what you could be doing differently, by learning from best practices in other areas.”
Those who don’t have time for ongoing group meetings can attend trade shows that attract participants from many industries. Go to the workshops and seminars where you’ll have an opportunity to talk with other business leaders, suggests Tencer.
To spread your company's message, get to know like-minded industry thought leaders, journalists and social media users with a significant following. These people will help you reach their audiences, says Tencer.
You don’t have to meet such contacts face-to-face to build a strong working relationship. One good way to meet amplifiers, says Tencer, is by offering useful information based on your professional knowledge. Post to social networks such as LinkedIn.
3. New prospects in growing industries
A good 44 percent of small business owners expect economic volatility to make it harder to reach their business goals for 2012, according to the Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute.
You may lose some sales to clients who are in bad financial shape in today’s economy, but you can compensate. Add new customers who are in thriving industries.
It’s not likely to happen by accident.
“If you want to be in health care, make it a point to do some homework,” says Andrea Nierenberg, author of Nonstop Networking. She is president of The Nierenberg Group, an executive training, recruiting and consulting firm in New York.
Identify key players in the market you want to reach, and make a plan for contacting them, perhaps through a site like LinkedIn or with introductions from professional contacts.
4. Savvy suppliers
When you buy products and services, take the time to ask your suppliers about what they're seeing in the marketplace. Consider inviting one or two to your office this year to make a brief presentation.
“They can definitely tell you about trends they have seen in your industry and in parallel industries,” says Tencer. Suppliers who do business internationally can offer a particularly comprehensive perspective.
5. Friends of friends
Forget the old taboo against mixing business with pleasure. Your social circle, from lunch mates at the office to high school friends, can be a great source of referrals. This works as long as they are familiar enough with the quality of your work to recommend you confidently to their contacts.
How do you foster unsought referrals? Be a recurring source of help to others in your personal, professional and volunteer networks. When you pass along a job lead or make introductions to a potential client, says Nierenberg, others will naturally want to reciprocate.
If you’ve lost touch with a friend, Nierenberg suggests that you set up a Google alert with that person’s name. News clippings and blog posts that pop up may give you conversation starters to use in an e-mail. Of course, if a buddy makes a valuable connection, you’ll want to take them to lunch or send a small gift.
“The better the relationships you have with people, the more likely they are to make introductions for you,” says Nierenberg.
Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist specializing in entrepreneurship. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, BNET, Crain’s New York Business, CBS Moneywatch, Good Housekeeping, Inc., Working Mother and many other publications. A former senior editor of Fortune Small Business magazine and editor of its website, she does editorial consulting for online and print publications.
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