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Three Essentials to Creating a Networking Strategy

Establish a plan to help determine who you want to connect with and where to find them.
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As a time-strapped small-business owner, determining which networking events to attend and which to skip can be tricky. It's all about the return on investment. How will your business benefit by you attending versus the time and resources it takes to be there.

This is when having a networking strategy will come in handy. From identifying who you want to connect with to knowing where to find them, here are three essential questions you should answer in order to create a networking plan that will work for you.

1. Who are my best prospects? You'd be surprised at the number of business professionals who can't define their best prospects. Most of them either say that everyone is a potential prospect, or they offer some vague description without any specifics. This is why business professionals so often find themselves trying to attend every networking event that comes down the pike. The usual result is that they don't wind up getting as much business from their networking efforts as they'd like to.

Having a strategy will help eliminate this problem. If you're not sure who the right contacts are for your business, go back and take a look at your past client list. What industries were they in? How long had they been in business? Were your clients even businesses to begin with or have you worked mostly with consumers?

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Once you've put together a profile of the people you've worked with in the past, pick up the phone and run it by a few trusted friends and colleagues. People who are close to you often have insights into patterns that you tend to overlook because you're busy with day-to-day operations.

2. Where can I meet my best prospects? If you're trying to meet more small business owners, you'll generally want to spend time at the chamber of commerce, your local business association or with a referral. Not only do these groups have exactly the type of audience you want to meet, there's a system in place that helps you help others to get more referrals for you.

But while attending chamber and other business association events are usually a good starting point, there are other venues and opportunities that fall outside typical networking events that will benefit your business as it evolves and you begin targeting specific niche markets.

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If you're looking to meet representatives from bigger corporations in your area, I recommend service clubs, nonprofit groups and volunteer work. Another good way is by attending homeowners' association meetings. It's a great way to connect with people who work in the corporate world but don't attend typical networking events. If you're a real estate agent who wants to meet first-time homebuyers and people interested in moving downtown, for instance, you'll probably find more prospects by networking at downtown events. It doesn't matter which event, as long as it's being held in the city center. Look also for networking events likely to be attended by young professionals, since these are the people most likely to be living in an apartment while accumulating the disposable income to buy a downtown condo or home.

3. Of my prospects, who exactly do I want to meet? The principles behind making the right kind of connection -- summed up in the simple aphorism "You don't know who they know" -- are ably outlined by network expert Wayne Baker at business networking consulting company Humax Networks in a referral tool he calls the Reciprocity Ring. Boiled down to its essentials, the idea is that the greater the number of networks you're connected with, the greater the chance that there's a short chain of contacts between you and anyone you'd care to name. All you have to do is recognize that fact and ask a few people a specific question or two. The answers will either put you in direct contact or lead you in the direction of the networking events you need to attend.

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The way to meet the unknown contact is to be as specific as possible without closing out all possible variations. You can do this by starting your question like this: "Who do you know who . . . ?" You complete the sentence with specifics: "Who do you know who is a new parent?" "Who do you know who belongs to an organization that builds houses for the homeless?" By asking for a specific kind of contact, you focus the other person's attention on details that are more likely to remind him of a specific person. Asking, "Do you know anyone who needs my services?" just isn't enough.

Finally, remember that it's important to surround yourself with quality business contacts. The best way to your ideal contact very often is through another contact.