Networking in the old-fashioned way - up front and personal

 

One business networking group reckons €50 million worth of referrals have been generated nationwide by its chapters in the past year, writes JOHN CRADDEN

AT LITTLE or no cost, online business networks such as LinkedIn promise easy links to potentially infinite numbers of business connections through its fast-expanding user base, but it seems many still struggle to develop new business through it.

While such networks continue to grow, so too do offline “word of mouth” networks focused almost exclusively on bringing business people together through face-to-face contact.

Business Networking International (BNI), one of the world’s biggest networking organisations, now has more than 2,000 paid-up members across 74 “chapters” dotted around the country. These chapters organise weekly meetings at which between 25 and 40 specially selected business people are brought together. Only one representative of any specific trade or profession is allowed to join each chapter.

Attendance at chapter meetings in Ireland has tripled since 2007.

“I have been on LinkedIn for a number of years, and I can tell you it has not generated one new client for me,” says Brendan Allen, a partner with Co Kildare-based accountancy firm Allen Morrissey.

Allen is a member and organiser at one of two BNI chapters in Co Kildare that hosted an introductory event in Naas in October that saw more than 250 people turn up, far more than the 200 that were expected.

The primary aim of any chapter meeting is to generate referrals, or what BNI calls the “givers gain” concept. “The idea is that you would give somebody an introduction to another business, and as a result of the introduction to that business they will likely give business back to you,” says Allen.

BNI offers training to members on how to deliver a 60-second elevator-type pitch, as well as other networking techniques.

“I have been a member of BNI for three years now – it has generated substantial business for me,” says Allen. “And that primarily is because of the face-to-face element, and the human contact involved.”

It certainly appears to reap big rewards. Over the past year, BNI estimates that more than €50 million worth of referrals (all of which are logged) have been generated through chapter meetings nationwide.

So even amid the growth of online networks, traditional “word-of-mouth” marketing seems to be holding its own.

“I think some people are unsure of online networking as they have not had the experience of it; they have received invitations from people and are not sure what to do; they have concerns over privacy issues and they have not invested time to understand how they can best use the sites,” says Krishna De, a social media strategist at BizGrowthNews.com.

De says there has been a “dramatic increase” in the number of networking events and meetings over the last year. For those who dislike working the room, online business networks are a boon. “For some people networking online is less stressful. Many people don’t enjoy networking or meeting people,” she says.

First Tuesday was once focused on bringing together entrepreneurs and investors in the technology industry, but is now open to all sectors. Despite its tech roots, members are predominantly interested in the events it hosts regularly, where visitors can pitch, raise funding, find new customers or partners, or just raise the profile of their business.

Since 2007 it has developed an online network too, but according to David Neville of Investnet, only 10 per cent of its 8,000 members have put up their profile on the site. “The remaining 90 per cent still receive the e-mails and attend the events, but they have no interest in the online dimension.”

“The internet is good for research and for finding business contacts but there is no alternative for doing business than meeting face-to-face,” says Neville.

Communications consultant and well-known blogger Damien Mulley isn’t so convinced. Online networks encourage more offline meet-ups, but very often good online tools are not being used in the right way, he says.

Networking organisations such as BNI “spoon feed you to a degree – it’s almost forced networking”, says Mulley. “I think forced networking, while artificial, is a good start.”

Many people seem unable to connect to people at events that are good for networking, so the methods used by BNI, including making every person give their pitch, can work. “Shy as you are, you still have to stand up and say what you do. At least then the room knows roughly if you can help them,” Mulley says. Some people set up in online networks and expect some kind of footfall straight away, but networking online requires a different approach, he adds. “You are going to have to work with online communities, show yourself off, show your ability, give value away, and then you build a reputation and then the business flows.”

Others become addicted to accumulating numbers and connections. “Fifteen valuable connections are much better than 150 connections you randomly added,” says Mulley.

While face-to-face networking remains its core function, BNI appears determined to exploit online networks in a way that fits with its ethos.

“Because of the training received by BNI members, they are extremely sophisticated in networking and it is recommended that members are also involved in other types of networks, some of which may be online,” says Sandra Hart, one of the executive directors of BNI in Ireland.

Next year, the organisation will launch BNIConnect, a “walled garden” online network that links to its 122,000 members worldwide as well as a new online networking workshop.