group of professionals at a networking event
From sharpening your listening skills to using social media, there are a variety of ways to network yourself and your business successfully. — Getty Images/AzmanL

As a busy small business owner who wears many hats, you might not prioritize the chance to mingle at cocktail parties and attend industry events and trade shows. However, experts say that expanding your professional network can be one of the most important things you can do for your business.

“Networking helps businesses stay ahead of the curve by exposing them to thought leadership, best practices, upcoming trends and insight into how other small businesses may be approaching similar issues,” said Sheila Murphy, president and CEO of Focus Forward Consulting, which provides career and business development coaching. “You may also discover synergies that can be beneficial to everyone. In addition, allowing people to learn about your business in a positive way can lead to buzz that can help your business grow.”

Here are our top tips for how to successfully network and make meaningful connections.

Focus on giving

Although you might think of networking as a way to gain something for yourself—whether it be new clients, sales or business ideas—it’s better to shift your focus to how you can provide value to others. “Often you will have to give first to initiate relationships, so seek to help others with no expectation of repayment,” said Christopher K. Lee, founder and career consultant for PurposeRedeemed. “Over time, as you build your network and develop a reputation as someone who offers value, your rewards will come.” Some ways to give include sharing advice or information, connecting someone with a colleague or an opportunity, or offering a free trial of your services.

Be a good listener

While you might be prepared to sell yourself with a stellar elevator pitch, don’t forget to be a good listener, too. “Listening is the most important activity when making connections as it is important to learn about the person you are connecting with,” said Tammy Gooler Loeb, an executive and career coach. “When you show your interest and curiosity in another person, they will feel engaged by you and naturally show interest in you.”

Find commonalities

Although networking can sometimes feel awkward, remember that everybody is human. It’s a good idea to try to find common ground with people to create a connection. “You may both play piano or basketball or be part of a certain ethnic minority or religious group,” said Lee. “Connecting over shared interests and experiences allows you to build genuine relationships and will prove more fruitful than simply doing similar work.”

Allowing people to learn about your business in a positive way can lead to buzz that can help your business grow.

Sheila Murphy, president and CEO, Focus Forward Consulting

Join a trade organization

“Trade associations are fantastic places to meet like-minded people and build quality, strategic relationships,” said Megan Accardo, a leadership strategist, business coach and host of the “Power Your Purpose” podcast. To figure out which trade groups to join, first identify your biggest professional goals and then brainstorm what types of people might be able to help you reach your goals faster. “Ask yourself, where do those aspirational contacts spend time?” said Accardo. “Are there trade organizations that will provide valuable access to people who are involved in your specific industry and who are at the level you desire to get to?” In addition to industry-specific groups, you should also consider joining your local or state chamber of commerce, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for access to events and the chance to mingle with other professionals.

Use social media

While it shouldn’t be a replacement for in-person networking, social media networking can be another great way to create connections. “You can begin by interacting with someone’s content in a positive, engaging way and then sending a short but welcoming introduction message,” said Accardo. “Never try to sell a product or service straight away, and don’t ask for anything in return.”

[Read: 5 Easy Ways to Use Social Media to Promote Your Business]

Nurture your connection

After you’ve shaken hands and exchanged businesses cards, be sure to follow up with your new contact, ideally within a few days. For instance, you can connect with them on LinkedIn and send them a quick note via email. “Most people will forget you in a few weeks, so you must reach out to build that relationship,” said Lee. “Don’t get discouraged if you don’t get an immediate response because people are busy, so follow up as appropriate.”

Give it time

You should look at networking as a marathon, not a sprint. “Because relationship building takes time, energy and effort, you have to grow and nurture your network well before you ever need it,” said Accardo. “If you are intentional about networking over time, you will have the strong relationships you need before ever having to ask a favor of anyone.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published February 26, 2020