Get A Lift From Virtual Networking

By: Peter Bennett

The best form of advertising is word of mouth. There's nothing new in that statement and few in business would disagree.

Unfortunately, what people fail to mention is that word of mouth advertising is also one of the hardest forms to get. It's one of the few problems you can't solve simply by throwing money at it.

People buy from people; usually people they like. It follows then that to benefit from word of mouth advertising, you have to get to know plenty of people and they have to like you.

One well trodden route to expanding your network of business contacts is to join a networking group. There are a number of well established networking groups which meet early in the morning over breakfast. By joining you get to know, and get to be known by, plenty of local businesses.

The idea is not to sell the group members but to educate them about what you do and the sort of referrals you would like so that they can generate referral business for you from their existing contacts.

It's a very powerful model. Suddenly you no longer have to rely on the yellow pages or other business directories to find suppliers and fellow members will start to pass you business referrals. In theory at least.

Having been a member of such a group for over a year I highly recommend joining a breakfast networking club if you your business is one with a geographical focus. By this I mean that if your potential customers are within a few miles of where the meetings take place, breakfast meetings are likely to work very well for you.

To give you an idea of just how well they can work, my local breakfast club generated nearly a million dollars worth of business for its members in just 6 months. Most of this was for companies in the construction sector.

Unfortunately, my companies are sell professional services and target mid to large corporates both in the UK and overseas. Hence the post code (zip code) focused nature of breakfast meetings didn't really work for me so I decided to start my own 'Virtual Networking Group' called the Ozone Business Network.

Virtual Networking sounds very high tech but all it means is that members of the group meet by phone and web as opposed to face to face. The meetings are run along similar lines to traditional breakfast groups but members can quite literally join the meetings without having to get out of bed. Since there is no need to travel, geography is irrelevant. You don't even need to be in the same country to participate.

Most of our members are based in the UK but a lady who runs a language translation company in Holland joins every week. We've even had people join when on assignment in the Yemen.

Whilst the virtual meetings are very effective, there is no substitute for face to face meetings to really get to know each other well so once a month, we hold a traditional meeting in the evening so that people can 'press the flesh' and develop business relationships over a drink or bite to eat.

So does it actually work? Well, it's early days yet. We've only been up and running for a few months but as word gets round we are getting more and more requests experience a virtual meeting first hand. In fact, after being covered in the UK newspaper The Sunday Times, we were inundated with requests for more information.

People like the way we retain some of the best ideas from traditional breakfast meetings but remove the need to travel thereby saving time, money and helping to protect the environment. Unfortunately nobody has come up with a way of vitalizing breakfast so you have to supply your own coffee.

We are always glad to hear from people who would like to join us but, to put it delicately, we need to ensure that we restrict membership to the type of person who would most benefit from our forum. Unlike many breakfast groups, we do not want to be all things to all people.

We are only really interested in having members who are relatively senior in their organisations and entrepreneurs who are interested in growing their businesses. We normally ask that members' companies have been established for at least a year.

We chose this breakpoint to avoid what I call "Startup Syndrome". Without wishing to be unkind to people just starting out (we all have to start somewhere) I have been to many networking events where people present themselves as fully formed companies but when you dig a bit below the surface you find they are one man bands with no establish client base and therefore no contact book to share with other members.

I am convinced that as business comes more international and travel becomes more expensive and time consuming, this is the way to go. Only time will tell.

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