Article: June Campbell

The Small Business Library

October 20, 2000

Should You Join an Offline Networking Group?

Network! Network! Network! That's the mantra that we heard over and over in the nineties. Networking groups sprung up like mushrooms and small businesses owners were urged to join, attend, participate and network their little hearts out. Many of us joined so many groups, attended so many breakfasts, luncheons, trade shows, after-work events and other activities that we had little time left to run our businesses. Now, as we enter the new millennium, "association burnout" is the new buzzword.

In short, business owners are disenchanted with the networking phenomenon and are cutting back on their participation. For many, it's not a decision to stop networking altogether, but to be more selective in the groups they choose to attend. The current trend is towards finding a group or two that offers you a definite advantage for joining, then focusing your offline networking energies towards those organizations.

If you operate an online business, you are definitely involved in virtual networking. Your business success depends upon your participation in mailing lists, message boards, chats, and involvement in various online communities.

But can an online entrepreneur benefit from attending a real-life networking group?

The answer, as I see it, is "yes", but with some qualifications.

First, be clear about your reason for attending. If your primary purpose is to make sales, it might not be worth your time. Netpreneurs depend on the type of volume that can only be found online. A networking group, even if it has a couple of hundred members, is tiny compared to the many thousands of customers you can attract on the web. Even if every member became your customer, which is unlikely, the numbers are still small.

Nevertheless, there can be other advantages:

Discounts: Many networking groups offer various products and services to members at a discount. This, however, is only an advantage if you actually need those services, and if the discounted price is a better buy than you might find elsewhere. For example, a networking group I belonged to had an arrangement with an insurance company to sell discounted disability insurance to group members. Research showed that the policy was not an especially good one, and the premiums were high. That's no bargain.

Suppliers: Your networking activities might lead you to suppliers who provide the products and services you need. True, you can find suppliers from the Yellow Pages, but many of us prefer to deal with people we know.

New Learning: If the networking event offers workshops and guest speakers with expertise, you are likely to gain new knowledge and new skills that you can put to work in some aspect of your online business.

Lobbying: Even if your business is 100% online, you are still affected by the local business environment and by the taxation laws in your political region. Many networking groups, such Boards of Trades or Chambers of Commerce actively lobby to improve local conditions.

Psychological: People who work from home, or people who spend much of their worklife in front of a computer monitor can become isolated. You benefit psychologically by getting out of the house and mingling with other business people who are experiencing challenges and successes similar to your own. You are likely to experience renewed energy and increased creativity because of your networking, and this will have a positive impact on your business activities.

In short, the keywords are "moderation" and "selection." Limit your groups to a manageable number, choose your group or groups wisely and then participate for the right reasons.

June Campbell's writing has appeared in several international print and online publications. Her web site offers a number of resources to small businesses - including guides for proposal writing, business plan development and more.
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