A referral is worth a huge amount to a small business. When you are referred a prospect someone they trust, you are borrowing that trust and the sales process is a whole lot easier. However, referrals don't just happen. They rely on building a strong network with people you know, like and trust.

Is a networking group worth considering in this regard? Should you find a group to help you with your networking, and if so, what should you be looking for?

The first question to ask yourself may sound obvious and it's this: "Is networking likely to be a major source of customers for my business?"

Some businesses may rely more heavily on advertising or online marketing to attract clients, but most small businesses would certainly benefit from referrals. Having decided that is the case for you, it is necessary to commit to making it happen. As mentioned above, a successful referral network relies on strong relationships, and these can't be built in a day. It will take time and commitment from you. Are you ready to make that investment?

This is important because researching, visiting, joining and contributing to a networking group is work. It's not something that you can take lightly. If you fail to put the work in, you stand a much higher chance of joining a group that's inappropriate for your business and therefore wasting time and money and frustrating yourself. Having said that, networking groups will more than repay your investment and can become a central part of your small business marketing strategy.

So, what should you look for?

  1. Is there a place open? Most groups are industry exclusive. That means there is only one member allowed per business category. This makes sense and prevents bad feeling and competition between members. If you are in a highly competitive sector, this may be a problem. It pays to check whether membership is open to you when you are researching groups.
  2. Are there likely to be referral partners in the group? Some businesses will be natural partners for you, others will not. Those with complimentary businesses to yours will be a much better fit, and less work for you.
  3. Time, venue and frequency of meeting. Are you sure you can commit to a group that is 20 minutes away that meets weekly at 7am? Some people prefer lunchtime groups but early mornings are the most common meeting time. Keep searching until you find one you can get to easily.
  4. Vibrancy. Let's face it: nobody wants to commit to a group with a handful of members. To make it worth your time you need a committed, energetic group with plenty of members (at least 15) and one with a great deal of networking going on outside the meeting.
  5. Rules - how many referrals are you expected to provide? What is the attendance policy?
  6. Cost - how do the fees fit into your marketing budget? Consider the cost of joining in terms of cash, but also how much time it will take out of your week. Remember, this is work, so there is bound to be some cost of doing business involved.

When you find a group that seems to tick all these boxes, you are likely to have found one worthy of joining. When you do so, commit to it wholeheartedly and for the long-term. Going into it with a mindset of "giving it a try" is a recipe for failure. It will take some time for you to build the required relationships, but stick at it. Invite other members to coffee meetings to get to know them better and really get involved.

It may take some time, but investing in research and visiting a number of groups will help you choose one that can really advance your networking and referral traffic.