As you plan your 2006 marketing activities, consider adding networking to your firm-wide marketing mix.Networking is a great way to build your business, and it's something that all members of your firm can do. Networking offers an opportunity to build business relationships, exchange referrals or leads, find potential qualified new hires, and seek advice, ideas and introductions from others.

The trouble with networking today, though, is that many younger team members view the activity as "old school" and "uncool."

To overcome this, we suggest that you encourage all team members to participate in networking within organizations that reflect their interests and activities (versus "forcing" on them the organizations that you, or other leaders in your firm, found success with previously). Potential organizations for your team members to evaluate when choosing their networking venue include:

* Sporting organizations, like the health club, yoga class and youth leagues, gymnastics, soccer, baseball and others;

* Community service activities, such as nonprofit boards, where you can meet bankers, lawyers and other community influencers;

* College alma mater events;

* Religious/philanthropic organizations;

* Industry trade groups;

* Traditional community organizations, such as chambers of commerce, Rotary, Kiwanis and others; and,

* Professional associations, such as state CPA societies and local chapter events, bar association meetings and financial executive organizations, to name just a few.

Each of your firm's team members should be encouraged to look within their own lives for places where they can make contacts, and then commit to exploring one of those areas in the next year and begin developing a network of their own. To help them get started, this article contains several important networking concepts to share with every member of your team.

Choosing your organization

To choose a networking organization, first evaluate each potential networking organization by:

* Attending some regular meetings to see if it "feels right" for you;

* Meeting with other members to see if you feel related to them;

* Reading each organization's newsletter and visiting their Web site; and,

* Learning who the organization's members are, what their mission statement is, the cost to join, the frequency of meetings and the requirements for membership to make sure that you agree with, and are comfortable committing to, them.

Once you've qualified your potential organizations in this manner, you'll be ready to choose the one that you feel best fits your unique personality, where you can make friends and associations and feel related to your organization and its members.

Getting involved

Whichever organization you choose to join, remember that the key to networking is to get involved. This will maximize your exposure to members and increase the potential that business opportunities will arise. To get involved in your networking organization:

* Attend their conferences, community activities, ball games, or other events that members are encouraged to attend;

* Volunteer to get involved in the group's activities, whether it be coaching a team or serving on a board or subcommittee. Commit to work within the group; and,

* Look for opportunities to evolve your role into a leadership position within the organization or association. As you build you own name and reputation, you will increase your firm's name recognition and reputation, too.

When attending your networking organization's events, be sure to:

* Prepare an "elevator pitch" and self-introduction ahead of time. Practice saying it until it feels natural and rolls off the tongue. An added bonus to preparing a self-introduction is that it comes in handy when you meet people elsewhere and they ask, "What do you do?"

* Before any meetings, games, practices, board meetings or other events, make sure to bring a good supply of business cards.

* When arriving at each organization event, place a name tag on your right breast pocket (if applicable), smile and enter the room.

* Avoid hanging out with people you already know or are in association with, as this will inhibit you from meeting your goal of making new contacts;

* Attend with the intention of meeting at least three new people at each networking event. When meeting others, ask questions and listen closely to their answers. You will be better able to determine qualified potential clients, staff or referral sources this way than if you spend all of your time talking or telling.

* When meeting new people, be sure to maintain eye contact with them, shake their hands, and work to remember their names.

* Take notes on the back of contact business cards and send a follow up "good to meet you" note or e-mail after the networking event.

* Check back in with your network contacts regularly to determine what might make sense in terms of potential collaboration.

* Offer to add your contacts to your firm's database and send them your firm's newsletter, seminar invitations, etc.

* Consider offering special pricing or discounts on your firm's services to your networking organization's members.

While it does require an investment of time, networking typically requires very little cash outlay and is a great way to build your firm's brand. In addition, networking will also enable you to occasionally generate qualified leads and can be a powerful addition to your firm's overall marketing mix.

Increase your firm's contacts and enhance your profile in your community by encouraging your entire team to engage in "new school" networking!

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