How and where people network

Ivan Misner

As business people, we tend to believe that the best way to get a result is to be there in person, yet we have only so many hours to spend on promoting our business.

We also know that there are countless online networking activities we could be participating in but it is not always clear which online networking sites are truly beneficial and it can be difficult to figure out how much time we should devote to online networking in order for it to be effective.  

One of the things that has changed in the world over the last five or six years is that we no longer trust the experts very much; instead we trust our peers.  Therefore, in order to try and get some answers to our questions about how much time we should be spending on networking and where we should be networking, both face to face and online, we thought the best thing to do would be to ask our colleagues—people like us whom we have met through networking and whose judgment we can rely upon.

Last autumn we did just that. We created a questionnaire to ask people like ourselves how much time they spent on networking, what specific marketing tools they used, and what the balance was between online and offline networking. The final question we asked them was how they liked to network—which events worked best, what size group proved to be the most beneficial for them, and how the process of trust development played out for them. In the end, 650 people completed the questionnaire.  Most were from BNI, Ecademy, or LinkedIn.

It took us a while to work out what they were telling us but the main story is ultimately very clear, not to mention pretty interesting.  Based on the results of our questionnaire, below is a summary of how the majority of professional businesspeople we heard from spend their time in regard to their online and offline networking efforts. These are very useful facts to consider when contemplating a strategy to adopt concerning networking your own business, both online and offline.

The most common amount of time that business owners spend on promoting their business is 12-15 hours. This covers everything from sales to networking to online and conventional marketing and promotion.

Face to face networking activity proved to be overwhelmingly important to our respondents. However, it is also clear that LinkedIn has become an important networking environment, especially for small businesses.

Other tools our respondents typically use to promote themselves are workshops, PR, online advertising, and email (25% or more use these tools regularly and/or depend on them).

Online, LinkedIn and Ecademy seem to be favored locations while offline BNI and other structured face to face events seem to be where people are focusing their networking efforts.

Most people reported that they prefer to network in groups of between 20 and 40, but some people reported that they prefer much larger groups. Larger groups appear to be more popular with larger companies, European companies, and high growth and global companies.

So, what are the underlying reasons which drive people to larger groups and online activities? We know from some earlier interviews we carried out that the people who most effectively utilize online media also seem to be good face to face networkers and that some of these people use technology to “Punch above their Weight.”  In other words, they use technology as an alternative to becoming conventional growth businesses.

We decided to check out whether scalability of the business makes any difference—i.e. whether or not the business is limited by demand rather than by its ability to supply, or whether a local vs. a national or global orientation has more of, or any, effect on what people like to do.

What we found was very interesting. It turns out that it is not the scalability of the business that makes the difference.  It is whether or not the business sees itself as local (defined as getting 80% of its business within a 50 mile radius) or national (or even international) in scope.

Companies who want to operate with a larger reach use online tools more.  They are:

  • Twice as likely to use LinkedIn (40% vs. 20%)
  • Much more likely to use Twitter (10% vs. 2%)
  • Twice as likely to use online social networks (30% vs. 15%)
  • More than twice as likely to run a blog (25% vs. 10%)
  • More likely to value chance encounters (22% vs. 14%)
  • Three times as likely to prefer a group measured in 100s and 1000s (16% vs. 5%)

This shows us quite clearly that companies who want to operate with a larger reach believe that going online and trying to reach a much larger, random population is worthwhile, and that companies who want to operate locally do not value online marketing nearly as much.

Thomas Power, Chairman of Ecademy, believes that a key challenge in marketing is to meet and become liked by the fifty people who can most affect your business. We think what we are seeing here is that if you have a local, non-scalable business—like a small, community-oriented, organic vegetable business, for example—you can find those 50 people by conventional, local networking.

However, if you are trying to promote ideas or scalable services nationally, you will benefit from the random connections that open, supportive networking gives you.

Another thing we found particularly striking about our survey was what all the groups surveyed had in common across the board.

They all believe that you need a core local support group. Furthermore, in all four categories, the mode (the option) that most people chose in regard to the size of the group they prefer to network with face to face was a core group of 20-30 individuals.

In addition, they all believe that trust is generated in the same way—by listening, practicing Givers Gain®, and following up with people quickly.  Having a good reputation is based on the social proof of others’ good opinion, evidence of enthusiasm and commitment, and the reciprocity of giving referrals before expecting them.

Most of all, however, you must develop the characteristic of clarity.  Being clear about what you do, what you stand for, and what benefits you and your business offer to people who might use your services. Only if people like you, trust you, and know what you do will they refer you to others, regardless of whether you are dealing in online or face to face networking.

Since the overwhelming majority of our survey respondents were offering business services, and most business in that industry comes by referral or recommendation, this gives us some real food for thought.

Where does your business fit into these findings? Do you feel that spending more time online would benefit you or not?

Ivan Misner, founder and chairman of BNI, author of The 29% Solution
Copyright 2010. All Rights Reserved.

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