Networking is one of the most important skills any business owner can have. The ability to engage and collaborate with like-minded as well as diverse professionals is an invaluable asset that can generate many new and exciting opportunities, and reinforce existing relationships. Strong networking skills provide a number of benefits which can drive bottom line outcomes for businesses. Long before there was ‘social networking’, there was ‘just networking’ and both forms are important and tangible business tools. Networking provides a business: The ability to articulate, and communicate a clear value proposition – Business owners that network often and effectively find they are able to define and refine their “value proposition”, or their “elevator pitch”. This allows them to practice clearly and succinctly articulating their offering and unique value proposition to their target customer and broader market. This can then be applied in any more direct sales efforts and proposals which may be required. If a business can’t describe why they are valuable and more value than a competitor, who will buy from them? It’s a great discipline to practice, and continually refine this messaging Improving marketing and promotion efforts – Effective networking can broaden markets and open up opportunities which may not always be apparent. Through the power of networks, business can promote their goods and/or services to a broader audience that may not have always been within reach. ‘Someone always knows someone’ and many people are willing to make introductions. This can strengthen a business reputation in the market, and generate increased interest and income Creating new partnership opportunities – Through networking activities, business owners may find that they are able to build stronger partnerships with other similar or complementary businesses; strengthening their value proposition and broadening their market base. Alliances and partnering initiatives can increase the differentiation of a business and serve to increase the value proposition. One plus one can equal a whole lot more when applying the network effect. Despite its benefits, many small and medium business owners find networking daunting and intimidating. The concept of “selling” or promoting through networking can feel false and often creates some anxiety and fear. Here are some tips on how entrepreneurs and small and medium business owners can proactively and successfully network and subsequently maximise the benefits that can flow. Know your market and your customers – Who are they and what are they searching for? Business owners should look to engage and network in areas that are relevant or complementary to their business. This will enable them to understand the needs and expectations of their target market, and better promote and communicate their goods and/or services Invest time in understanding available networking tools – There are many different ways business owners can network, and this is usually dependent on the industry or sector. However, common platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter can quickly and easily enable businesses to reach a broader audience and build a “personal brand”. Take the time to develop your LinkedIn profile and ensure that it highlights your offering and resonates with your client market Be genuine – Networking is about being genuine and authentic in order to build relationships. Remember: people buy from people they like! If you are able to build rapport with your colleagues and market, you will find it easier to articulate your offering, and promote your goods and services to the market Be curious – When you meet new people, ask open ended questions during conversations. This includes questions that ask “who, where, when” as opposed to those that can be answered with a “yes” or “no”. This line of discussion will open up the conversation and drive new dialogue, enhancing your potential to meet new people and make new networks! Follow through on all your conversations – Make sure you build a reputation among your networks for following through quickly and efficiently on referrals. The ability to engage, and follow through with any questions, contacts or information are invaluable in building long term relationships. Strong networking capabilities are invaluable for all businesses regardless of size. There are many free and readily available resources and events that can help entrepreneurs and smaller business owners improve their networking skills. One of these is the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme – which holds a range of learning events where business can hear from an expert and network with other businesses. Entrepreneurs’ Programme is a free federal government initiative that provides strategic advice, connections and support for small and medium businesses.