A few days ago I jotted down notes for an article on how to get more value from your networking efforts and as I sat down to write this article for the 365 Days of Marketing blog, I remembered writing in 365 Days of Marketing about the fact that a lot of people misunderstand what networking is and isn’t, and so may never realize any return on their networking efforts.

If this has been your experience, you may have written off networking as a waste of time in terms of a bona fide marketing tactic. I’m hoping to give you a reason to give it a fresh look, and I’m hoping to give you some useful ways to adjust your approach to networking so that it brings some actual benefits to your business.

As it turns out, the 2nd week of April is actually National Networking Week — so no wonder it was on my mind!
In 365 Days of Marketing, I define networking this way: net-work-ing, noun
meaning: the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions
specifically: the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business Networking is more than attending meetings with other business owners or showing up at events where prospects might be in attendance.

Real networking is purposeful.

It either involves working together with peers to help improve the business climate in your community or it involves being present, visible and alluring in the same places as are your target market/s prospects or ideal types of clients.

Maybe that’s why so many business professionals give up on networking or put it on the bottom of their priority list; they’ve been doing it wrong! Now that you have a better understanding of what networking is (and isn’t), how are you going to put this tactic to work to help build business?

Here are 6 ways that you can reap a bigger return on your networking efforts:

1. Know what you want to get out of it and be prepared.
When you attend networking meetings and conferences, be prepared with an audience-targeted, short introduction – no more than 30 seconds, and no more than one main point beyond your name, company name and title. For more on networking introductions read this post on the topic called “I’m Sorry, I’ve Already Forgotten Your Name.”

In addition to your 30 second power introduction, consider offering something for give away (I frequently bring a copy of one of my books for give away at networking events by way of instant business card drawing). And create a one-sheet which is targeted to that audience and which highlights some important aspect of your business. I like to include a sample blog post along with a short list of “Related Services” that my business provides.

And make sure every one-sheet or take away includes a call to action and the means for the recipient to take the next step in the relationship they have (or want to build) with you and your business. Such calls to action might include an invitation to subscribe to your blog or email newsletter, to visit your business or book an appointment, to shop your store or website, to connect with you on social media, etc.

2. Use your social media platforms to make generous mention of businesses in your networking groups.
All too often we focus all of our marketing communications – social media profiles included – on marketing our own businesses. You can improve your SEO and generate plenty of goodwill among your peers if you will use your social media platforms for what they were intended; social interaction.

Over the last month, I’ve made it a point to mention every independent business that I’ve interacted with on social media as quickly as possible. It costs me very little by way of time and brings a wonderful return in the relationships that I’m building with other business owners. And hopefully it encourages my peers to do the same on social media in mentioning my services and those of the other businesses in our networking groups (and isn’t that one of the purposes of networking groups, anyway?)

3. Encourage reciprocal links.
Most blogs include a list of recommend other blogs or other websites that the blog’s author would recommend to their readers. Just as you can mention other local businesses on social media, you can also set up links to their businesses on your blog or website as local resources which you would feel comfortable recommending as resources for your customers. And there’s no reason not to point this out to the businesses with which you choose to network and to create reciprocal links in order to boost everyone’s SEO as well as provide a helpful list of local resources for your customers.

4. Write reviews for your networked peers.
Again, you might be asking yourself, why should you spend valuable time talking up other people’s businesses? The first reason should be that you genuinely want to be an information hub to your own customers in providing valuable resources to your customers. It improves your own reputation when you make good recommendations to others, and it makes you look good to both your peer business owners and your customers when you spend time saying good things about other people, and other businesses!

Secondly, reviews, blog comments and other similar online forums can also help you improve your own SEO and visibility to prospective customers. You can leave reviews on sites such as citysearch.com, yelp.com and others. You can also leave your own “shout outs” and complimentary reviews of local businesses on their blog sites, and on their social media pages (as well as your own). You may even choose to feature raves for local businesses in anecdotal stories as posts on your own blog.

However and wherever you decide to leave reviews for other businesses, I would recommend that you adhere to what “mom” always advised. When reviewing other businesses in your community, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

5. Create an online directory.
One of the ways to build influence and become a catalyst for improving the local business economy is to turn your blog and websites into hubs. And not only hubs of information, but your website (and blog roll) is a great place to create a hub of local business listings. Include a directory of local resources on your website which features listings of the businesses within your peer networking groups.

6. Actually visit – and patronize – the businesses represented in your networking groups.
I recently attended a local networking group at the invitation of a friend who said that she was a little fed up with the networking group. When I asked why, she replied that in the year they’d been having the meetings, not one of them had even visited her business.

While participation in networking groups should bring referrals from other members, it might be that a lot of networking groups are missing the person that should be the most obvious referral: you.

If you participate in business networking groups, and especially if you are going to refer your own customers to these other businesses, take the time to visit these other businesses and patronize them when you have opportunity. After all, this is something you want from other group members, right? Time to put your time and money where your desires are!

If you think about it, local business networking groups operate as loosely affiliated cross and cooperative marketing partners in many respects. Wouldn’t it behoove your networking group to approach this strategically and make this one of the biggest benefits to local business owners for participation?  Feel free to pass on my tips to your group or even use them as the basis for a more purposeful, concerted effort in order to boost the local economy for all participating businesses!

Like any other part of your overall marketing, networking should be done as strategically and efficiently as possible. You are much more likely to reap a return when you understand what networking is (and isn’t) and you have a plan for getting the most ROI on the investment of time and money you make.