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Targeted networking and social media

It’s hard to imagine a life before social media, even though sites like Facebook and Twitter have been around for less than a decade. As businesses look back over that decade, they can easily see how these sites are changing the way they do everything. Professionals use these sites to network, interact with customers, and bring team members together.

Notably, networking with a purpose, partnerships with other small businesses and staff training are key to winning new business.

When it comes to business efficiency, the main focus is often on the operational side, the day-to-day running of the company. But what about improving efficiencies around winning new business?

In their desperation to land new contracts, find new customers, and exploit new markets, many business owners take a scatter-gun approach to things like business networking and using social media. They spend a lot of time and money, and a great deal of effort, often with disappointing results. According to figures from business networking organisation BNI, 98% of businesses rely on word of mouth to gain new business, yet only 3% have a strategy for doing so. Networking has to be one of the most valuable ways of winning new clients. But it must be done efficiently and to that end, less is definitely more, says publicist and media relations expert Carla B. She says: "The fussier you are about who you want to build strong and deep relationships with, the greater the likelihood of success. Your aim is to spent 90% of your networking time with less than 10% of your network." The key to networking efficiently and successfully, Ms. B. explains, is not about chasing any bit of business, which many SMEs do in their desperation to generate leads, but to be very focused on exactly the type of work they want to win and who they need to talk to in order to win it. She adds: "Sadly most people attending a network event have not done this level of critical thinking. It has to be at a deeper level than 'meeting people who can introduce me to potential clients or customers'. "My own biggest mistake when I started running my own business was networking in the local SME scene. There was no critical mass of my target market - predominantly accountants and lawyer - to help me achieve the profile and visibility I required to generate leads. Now the only face-to-face networking I tend to do is either on a one-to-one basis, or attending large legal or accountancy industry events." Social media can be an excellent source of leads and new prospects for a small business and managed well, can potentially be the most efficient and cost effective way of finding and keeping new customers. And there are plenty of tools available to help small business owners keep on top of their social media activity including Hootsuite, Tweetdeck and CubeSocial, which goes a stage further with built-in functionality for tracking, assessing and engaging potential new customers. CubeSocial co-founder and CEO Linda Cheung says: "Each new follower you get on Twitter is a potential client, partner or even competitor. If you were a retailer, this is the virtual equivalent of someone walking into your store and browsing around. The best retailers will greet their prospective customers with a smile and encourage them to have a look around. How do you greet your virtual window shoppers? If you are like most people, you probably don't. CubeSocial helps to fix that by allowing you to review the people that have followed you over the last seven days, easily decide if they are relevant to you, and then engage with them." Forming partnerships with other businesses that operate in the same market, but are not in direct competition with you, is another potential source of new business. Lancashire-based photographer John Bentley has just started using this strategy of cross promoting products and services across a partnership. He says: "I market my portrait photography services via Twitter and Facebook as well as through local channels, but recently started looking into the idea of working with other small businesses to see if we can help each other. One of them is a small local restaurant Delicieux, which recently hosted an art fair that I attended. After chatting with the owners, we realised that there was potential to cross promote each other's businesses within our own - food and photography complement each other well. "My partner, who is an artist, now has a number of her paintings on display there. It has made me realize the potential for a number of small firms to work together, generate exposure, attract new customers and win new business for each other in a very efficient and cost effective way." Business consultant Rob Brown has provided sales training for thousands of employees. He urges SMEs not to overlook possibly their most effective and efficient new business winning asset, their staff. He says: "Motivating and equipping your own staff to be advocates and introducers of new business is often an overlooked marketing strategy for many companies, and yet the secretaries and cleaners will probably know a lot more than you think about your business. "Remember the acronym 'AWE' to help you turn your people into a virtual sales team for your business. A is for allow; giving them permission by making it clear that introductions are on the agenda, and that they are allowed, encouraged and even expected. W is for woo. Introduce a range of incentives, recognition, storytelling and promotions to inspire a culture of commercial opportunism from the unlikeliest of people, and finally, E is for equip. Your staff will need tools and education. Any kind of marketing collateral, stories, conversations starters, sales training, coaching or encouragement you can give will reap dividends in terms of new business opportunities." Tips on networking efficiently to win new business If business owners are going to network there are three key things they must do in order to get a return. 1. Prepare before you go. Set yourself a goal of how many people you'd like to meet, and know what you're looking for and why. And thinking about how you might be able to help them as well as how they can help you. 2. Be specific: don't just think about the people in the room, think about who they may know. So, be specific when you're requesting your 'in'. Know the person's name, their job title or the business name rather than just a vague reference to wanting to get more contacts in a general industry. 3. Follow up: make notes on business cards immediately (be sure to ask the person before you start defacing their business card) and once you've left the meeting read over them and start your follow up right away. It's easy to forget what was agreed when you've met lots of people. Customer-Driven Change As businesses continue to try to redefine themselves in this new technology-driven world, customers are crucial to those changes. While a CEO may not be required to spend all day retweeting respected colleagues or posting insightful comments on Facebook, it is important that they realize the value of social media in driving decisions. Realizing that value is the first step toward beginning to look at the numbers and use them to drive decisions. How many customer complaints came through Twitter last month? Which posts on Facebook received the most “likes.” Social media-savvy CEOs realize the insight that can come from gathering statistics on that information and use it to gain an edge over the competition. As social media continues to influence everything businesses do, everyone from the CEO to the new summer intern will need to realize the part it plays in day-to-day duties. Those professionals will be forced to keep up or be left behind. But it’s equally important that professionals balance their social media efforts with face-to-face networking and traditional advertising to stay in touch with the customers who aren’t on social media around the clock. Follow this author on twitter for weekly pr tips, insight and some of public relations best practices - @eotmpr

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