Social media and other online networks, forums and meet-ups all provide a great way to connect with others regardless of geographic locations.  Online networking receives so much attention in today’s always-connected technology-filled world that many people forget about the proven value of networking offline; that is, actually meeting with people face-to-face.

In-person networking can build sustainable, long-term relationships and provides a wonderful opportunity to learn more about your customers’ interests, potential partnering opportunities, what’s happening in the local community and even your competitors’ products or services. While online networking is essential, nothing beats in-person discussions, meetings and events!

Face-to-face networking to build customer interest

In-person networking events are opportunities to introduce yourself and your business to potential customers and other businesses in your industry. As you introduce yourself to others, focus on communicating your name, business name and a sentence about the benefit your business provides. After that, the key to success is actively listening to the other person to find out about them. If you keep the question “What can I do for you?” in the back of your mind, you’ll listen intently, learn more and also make a lasting impression. This type of interaction is more meaningful than simply exchanging business cards. Once a connection is made via conversation, business cards are a nice way to provide contact information for a follow-up by phone, social media, email or another face-to-face meeting.

Networking events include trade association meetings, local chamber of commerce events, and trade show seminars. Networking can be informal, as well. Take a walk around your town and introduce yourself to other small business owners. You might reveal synergistic opportunities for both businesses. You’ll learn what other small businesses are learning about market trends and customer preferences in your area.

Speaking engagements are another valuable way to build your brand. Look for opportunities at trade shows, chamber of commerce seminars, or as a guest speaker at local colleges and community club meetings. Attendees may be potential customers or competitive businesses, and sharing your expertise will demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of market needs. You will build credibility as you gain market insights.

Participate in local not-for-profit events. Choose an organization you love or a cause you believe in. You can participate by helping to plan the event, contributing funds to it, speaking at it or advertising it in your store or on your social media channels. You will reach like-minded people who will be more likely to seek your services when they need it.

And here’s another suggestion: Give repeat performances! Don’t just show up one time at an event or speaking engagement. Building your brand requires time. Your market needs to see you multiple times before they will recognize and remember you. Show your commitment and you will build sustained relationships.

Face-to-face networking to understand your competition

The next time you’re at a trade show or other event, make it a priority to study your competition. How do they present themselves and how are they received? What are their major messages? Introduce yourself to the competition and let them know you’re in the market.  Healthy competition can help you perform better.

Face-to-face networking to utilize market trends

Your business may be suffering from “last year” syndrome, which can decrease its popularity with customers who want the latest and greatest products or services. The more you converse with customers, the competition or even businesses with substitute products, the more you will stay current with changing trends, improved technologies and business practices.  You can read about trends in endless on-line periodicals, but actually speaking with customers and businesses in your area will give you real input you can use to make an impact. It’s important to be able to offer services your target market wants. If it requires you to take training classes to learn new skills, do it and let your market know that keeping up to date is a priority for your business.

Face-to-face networking events are time proven and continue to be important elements of a small business marketing plan. The best way to make sure you’re covered is to create a marketing calendar, where you can document a plan to participate in events throughout the year. Once you know where and when you’ll participate, you’ll want to actively prepare yourself and other employees for the event. Have your business description memorized and your game plan for evaluating the competition and meeting participants.

Building your on-line and off-line networking plan gives you structured ways to measure the success of your marketing goals. You will build awareness, increase credibility and a strong customer base.