There are a lot of networking events available to people in all manner of businesses, and Minuteman Press Bristol has attended a number of these as a guest, the conclusions of which are detailed below. Comments have been generalised across networking organisations whose practices vary and do not relate therefore to one specific organisation.
Objective and cost
The primary objective of the structured networking group is to provide business for its members. Formal organisations in the UK require a paid membership (e.g. Business Network International BNI, 4Networking, NRG, Business Referral Exchange BRX) typically in full and in advance of becoming a member. Membership fees vary, but a charge of £500 per year (often double in the first year) plus a charge to attend each meeting is not uncommon.
The question of how membership fees are spent is an interesting one, because it is not to pay for the venue or catering.
Offer of sales leads
The networking group membership payment offers no guarantees of quality sales leads, or even any sales leads. Where existing sales leads and current opportunities are highlighted as an inducement to join, the prospective member should request a guarantee of how many leads will be handed over at the point of payment.
Groups typically consist of 20 members and actively avoid duplication of products. Network group members are penalised for non-attendance and the ultimate sanction is removal from the group.
The quality of members varies. Members appear desperate for business and identify the decidedly poor quality of leads provided by fellow members. The pressure to supply a high quantity of leads was identified as a particular weakness.
The organised networking experience works well for members where products are complimentary (eg plasterer and painter, solicitor and accountant) but this should (and does) occur ordinarily.
For the networking group to succeed it requires members who meet large numbers of new clients every week, to supply products in the local area and – most importantly – to recommend members who offer highly relevant products that have already been personally experienced.
Members are required to recommend the products of members of the group at every opportunity and identify leads that they have supplied in group meetings along with those they have received.
Recommendations for goods and services are best made by an individual who has actual experience of the organisation that is being recommended. The result is that rather than proven high quality and service suppliers being recommended, networking members simply recommend their fellow member who best fits the category required. It is astonishing that networking club members are willing to stake their commercial and personal reputation on suppliers that they have zero firsthand experience of.
New members are often recruited after having attended meetings as guests. The meetings allow a restricted input from guests but can lead to a pressured discussion to commit to attend, followed by numerous emails and phone calls.
Networking shouldn’t require a membership charge or blind commitment to other members’ products: it should be born of experience.
Minuteman Press Bristol would never recommend a supplier to clients with no experience of the quality of their work.
An interesting question for the prospective member is to understand what percentage of members actually uses the services of each other? Also, what happens when you have matched and shared your appropriate contacts with the group and vice versa? Does the group stagnate or are members required to solicit further associates to attend?
Minuteman Press Bristol would recommend that your finances are spent elsewhere, on something where the return on marketing investment will be higher and its source more ethical.
Networking is an important marketing tool, but organisations should be sourced that are fundamentally free, no pressure, have large membership and many buyers and sellers (e.g. gyms, churches, academic groups, professional groups, charities, sports clubs, drama groups, etc). Join a group that will offer a pleasurable experience. Enjoy yourself, have fun and be relaxed: that way networking will become an enjoyable social occasion.