According to the 2015 U.S. Bank Small Business Annual Survey, "67 percent of small-business owners reported that they maintain a social media presence for networking and marketing purposes." But in-person activities, such as belonging to and attending community or Chamber of Commerce events, were less common, despite the fact that using both may help answer the age-old question of how to find new customers.
I tapped three small-business owners—Sunny Bonnell, co-founder of branding agency Motto in Dallas, Texas; Blake George, founder of design firm BMG Media Group in Detroit, Michigan; and Matthew Manos, founder of business consultancy verynice in Los Angeles—to find out how small-business owners can use networking to find new customers.
Why is networking important for small-business owners?
Sunny Bonnell: I've always believed that the best relationships come from exploration and experiences. Networking is imperative as a small-business owner because it forces you to get out and interact with people who can help grow your business.
Blake George: Networking is a great way to expand your sales team without carrying the overhead. More than likely, the individual you talk to may not need your service in the short term. You may think it’s a dead lead, but ultimately the goal is to get that individual educated on your product or service enough to remember you in the future.
Matthew Manos: Many small-business owners have unrealistic expectations when it comes to networking. The thought often is, “Oh, cool, I’m going to go to this event, and then I’ll get a new client tomorrow.” Immediate satisfaction or return on effort is not the point of networking, and frankly rarely happens. Networking is a valuable tool for small-business owners because it allows them to showcase their skills by being of service to others, developing their network’s network and becoming a friendly and familiar face.
—Sunny Bonnell, co-founder, Motto
What activities do you engage in to keep a continuous pipeline of new customers?
Manos: At verynice, our approach to engaging an audience and keeping a continuous pipeline of new customers and opportunities comes down to creating value, helping others and being present.
George: Engaging current customers is key because the best leads are referrals—your customer base provides credibility on your behalf. Additionally, targeted advertisements on social networks are a great way to advertise to your perfect customer at the budget you can afford with no monthly commitments.
Bonnell: At Motto, we are incredibly socially minded and PR driven. We are hyperactive on Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat and love sharing our work. Small-business owners need to understand what they are trying to achieve and what avenues they must travel to get there. For example, we’re in the early stages of our first book, and a strategic roadmap will be an essential tool to support that initiative.
How do you find time for proactive outreach when you’re incredibly busy?
George: Just like anything else, you make time! Maintaining priorities and efficiency on your current tasks is a game changer. Fine tuning the perfect amount of task delegation to your employees or automated software will help lighten your schedule. Most importantly, don’t procrastinate.
Manos: As the founder of our organization, a major part of my role [and] job description is to serve as the face for our company. As a result, I speak at an average of 100 events per year. That sounds like a lot, but in reality, this takes up about four hours of my time every week. Those 300 hours per year generate 75 percent of our business leads, but only add up to about two months of full-time effort.
Bonnell: You have to be mindful that work can never be taken for granted and branding, outreach and creating awareness for your business is a labor of love. Sometimes I get up an hour earlier. If I have a little downtime, I'll jot notes down or use Anchor to capture my ideas.
Is online networking as effective as in-person networking? Why or why not?
Manos: Online networking is more effective than in-person networking when it comes to defining yourself and your small business as a familiar and trusted resource. This is because one tweet can reach tens of thousands of people, while one speech might only reach a few hundred. This said, the online world is fiercely competitive. You are immediately up against the most accomplished entrepreneurs in the world.
Bonnell: Both approaches can be influential and affect your business in powerful ways. In-person meetups are often one-on-one and therefore more personal, whereas online networking can put more eyes on your content or brand far more quickly. Both serve the same purpose—helping you build relationships that result in business growth.
George: Face-to-face interaction is still the most effective way to sell because you can gauge the future customer’s body language and facial expressions. If done correctly, online networking allows you to move more quickly with a targeted demographic and higher volume of people.
For more tips on how to help build and optimize your business connections, access our exclusive video series with MSNBC: Networking: Making Connections to Build a Better Business.
Join the discussion with other small-business owners here.