Another Look at Networking Groups
Photo by jurvetson.
Three years ago, I noticed my design business starting to slip. And, wouldn’t you know it, that slip soon became a slide.
So, I tried various things that I’d heard were good for businesses like mine. Here’s how they worked out:
- Advertising. It proved to be a fabulous way to attract price-shoppers and tire-kickers. No more ads for me.
- Direct Mail. Although I had been diligent about sending postcards to the people on my in-house list, I found that they were becoming immune to my mailings. This, despite the fact that I was doing telephone/e-mail follow-up after each one. Combine this with the fact that printing and postage costs have really gone up, and you can see the reason why I’m now just an occasional mailer.
- Mentoring. I signed up for a local mentoring program. And got an experienced mentor. Since the business was deep into Slide Mode, I started exploring career alternatives. Well, in this particular mentoring program, exploring alternatives was bad, very bad indeed. So, I was kicked out.
- The Networking Circuit. Oh, boy, does this one get a lot of airplay in forums like this. The idea is that if you join the business/professional groups, go to their meetings, and get involved in the running of the groups, business will come your way. Didn’t work for me.
I even got involved in one group to the point of volunteering for but two major projects. In the course of that volunteer work, I found that the members did very little business with each other. Referrals occasionally happened, but if you’re in business for yourself, you can’t pay your bills occasionally.
- Seeking Publicity. Although this works wonderfully for some people, I’ve found it very tough to pull off here in Tucson, Arizona. Our local media is a very tough nut to crack. I also found that, instead of seeking publicity, I’d be better off if I just cut to the chase and sought…
And that what motivated me to pick up the phone. I covered my cold-calling system in this July 31 Freelance Switch article. I’m going to be referring to the Ideal Client Profile concept developed in the cold-calling article, so why not have it open in another browser window.
Networking Groups Revisited
When I’m referring to networking groups, I mean groups that are organized around:
- Sharing leads with fellow members. You’ll often hear these called leads clubs.
- Owning or working in businesses within a certain locale. Chambers of Commerce would fall into this category.
- Gender or ethnicity. The (U.S.) National Association of Women Business Owners is an example.
- Being of a certain age. For example, the Young Professionals Organization is geared toward people in their twenties, thirties and forties.
- Owning a business or working in a certain industry. These are trade associations. You name the business or industry, there’s probably at least one trade association for it.
For some freelancers, networking groups work quite well. Others have experiences like the one I described above. And, as a result of that experience, I’ve cut way back on networking meetings.
But, since many freelancers want to give the networking circuit a try, here are three tips to make it work.
- If you’re like many freelancers, you’re not just there to network, you’re there to get work. But understand that this process can take months, even years. And, if you’re trying to turn your business around, you don’t have months or years. So, networking groups may not be the best route to take.
But, if you’re hoping to make a quick sale, try some after-meeting follow-up. Let’s say you went to a lunch and sat next to a lady from a government agency that has quite the budget. You would love to do some work for them. So, you get your lunchmate’s business card and call her within a day of the meeting.
Tip: Don’t delay on the follow-up calling – people quickly forget who they’ve talked to at meetings.
When I make these calls, I say, “Hi, Jane, this is Martha Retallick. We met at yesterday’s ABC Club meeting.” I pause and give Jane a chance to respond. Then I ask The Question: “Does your agency hire outside designers?” A direct approach, to be sure. But it can lead to work.
- Instead of going to this, that, and the other meeting, focus on groups that fit your Ideal Client Profile (ICP). If you’re looking to do business with biotech companies, find the biotech trade associations and start attending their meetings. You might be tempted to join right away, but I recommend going to as many meetings as you can before you’re required to write the membership check. Annual dues can be pretty hefty. You need to check the group out before you spend the money.
In addition to going to the meetings, call some of the other member businesses and asking if the group has been a source of good clients. And call the group’s board members. A couple of years ago, I was considering associate membership in a local trade group. After attending their monthly meeting, I phoned the board member who’d given a “state of the industry” report.
Since he was a longtime member, I asked him what he thought about designers as associate members. The group certainly fit my ICP, but his response was quite revealing. He said that he’d never seen designers having any sort of lasting success. So, I thanked him for his honesty and passed on joining. That honesty saved me many hundreds of dollars that would have been spent on dues and monthly meeting fees.
- If you join and start volunteering for group projects, be careful. Why? Because we creatives have a very high EQ. That stands for Exploitation Quotient. What this means is that we’re often hit up for freebies “for the group.” This includes such things as:
- Designing or redesigning the group’s website.
- Becoming the group’s copywriter. For all of their written materials – and their 100-page website.
- Re-programming the group’s membership database.
And on it goes. While there’s nothing wrong with doing these things, you are in business to make money, and you’d best be sure that the time you put in on this “for the group” work will result in paying work down the road.
You don’t want to end up like a designer acquaintance of mine who reflected on her time in a well-known women’s community service organization. She said, “They got a free newsletter out of me, but I didn’t get any business out of them.” Needless to say, she’s no longer a member of that group.
After reading these tips, you may decide that the networking circuit – and all of its meetings – just isn’t for you. And you’re not the only one. I recently read Larry Winget’s book, It’s Called WORK for a Reason! He shares the following thoughts about networking groups:
“I would steer clear of networking groups and their meetings. I know that will get some of you riled up. About half of all salespeople live and die by their networking group. Networking groups are usually just salespeople trying to sell their stuff to other salespeople.”
Okay, okay. I understand that we’re not grubby salespeople. We’re much better than that because we are (dramatic pause) creative freelancers.
But, even if we are creatives, we’re still in sales. There’s no getting away from that fact.
Winget goes on to say, “Unfair to networking groups? Ask everyone in their networking group where they rank among professional salespeople in their industry. My bet is that very few, if any of them, will rank in the top 25 percent of their industry in terms of results.”
But we still need to get out of our creative caves and interact with the rest of the world.
Winget advises readers to “Get involved. Get known. Go to charity events, civic events, wine tastings, art fairs, church, whatever. Be around people. Not with a handful of business cards to pass out. Don’t even go with the idea of getting more business. Instead go there and get involved in the event. Be the kind of person others admire, can count on, trust, and enjoy spending time with. After you have developed that reputation, people will start to ask you what you do and you will be amazed at how many people will want to work with you.”
I’ve been applying Winget’s advice to my own life. Since I already spend enough time at the computer as a designer, I don’t do that in my “Get Known” time.
Instead, I’m building my photographic skills and portfolio by doing the camera work for my neighborhood association and various grassroots community groups. The pay is nonexistent, but the learning opportunities and contacts have been priceless. And I’m finding that the composition skills I’ve developed as a photographer have strengthened my design work.
And so we reach the end of our tour of the networking circuit. I hope that it has been helpful to you.