By Andy Lopata, Business Networking Strategist

Speaking at Ice Blue Sky’s B2B (business to business) Marketing Symposium last year, Deborah Biscomb, Head of Field Marketing Europe for Sterling Commerce said, “Marketing is changing, and it’s changing dramatically now. We have to start talking to people.

Deborah was just one of a number of speakers at the event who talked about the importance of engagement, collaboration and listening to customers in modern marketing.

Not so long ago you would struggle to find references to networking or word of mouth marketing in marketing books. Neither was considered a key part of the ‘marketing mix’ and few marketing strategies incorporated networking.

That is beginning to change. The growth of ‘buzz marketing’ and social networks has placed networking firmly on the agenda, even if the term itself is still widely derided. Networking is a core part of any marketing agenda and should be treated as such. Any business who fails to build networking into their marketing strategy is going to operate less efficiently and less effectively than those who do.

To build networking into your marketing strategy you need to understand what it is and what it can help you achieve. For me, networking is quite simply working together, or collaboration. Rather than try to achieve something on your own, it is so much easier to build in the ideas, contacts, experiences and expertise of others. You can do that through your network.

I believe that businesses network for three main reasons. Networks help you to become better known, better equipped and better connected and each of those areas has a major impact for marketing teams.

It's who knows you

It’s often been said that ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’. In marketing this has never been enough. It’s not who you know but who knows you and what they say about you that really has an impact.

Much marketing effort is focused on raising brand awareness, getting your message out there so that people know about you and what you offer. Networks offer the most cost-effective way to spread such messages. Through key influencers within your target demographic, by pitching up at events and now through a host of online networks you have a multitude of opportunities to reach potential clients for your products or services.

Do you know who the key influencers to your marketplace are? More importantly, do they know you and what are they saying about you? Building relationships with the hubs of your prospects’ networks, the people to whom they will listen before making buying decisions, is vital if you want to attract people to your product or service.

If you sponsor events, take stands at exhibitions or attend networks where your prospects will be present, make sure the team who represent you understand how to maximise the opportunity.

More than once I have spoken at events where the sponsor’s staff has stood around talking to each other, rather than splitting up and speaking to attendees. More than once I have attended exhibitions where stand holders refuse to stray from their pitch and wait for people to approach them.

Networking is all about engagement and relationship building. That means breaking out of comfort zones and starting conversations. Ask your team to put themselves into the shoes of their prospects at the event. How can you best engage with them to get them interested in helping you, tell others about you or want to buy from you?

One of the best ways to engage with customers, prospects and influencers today is through online networks, the best known of which are Facebook and Twitter. Participation in such networks allows you to grow your profile virally. If you build a conversation with your fans and followers, they will tell other people about you and draw them into the conversation. Never before have so many companies been able to recruit others to spread the word about them at little to no cost. If people enjoy dealing with a company, they want to tell others about it. Social networks help you to leverage that desire and inspire your customers to rave about you to others.

Personal engagement is the key. Ask questions of your customers through social networks, comment on their activity, support them in what they do and respond to their comments and requests. Always respect and remain supportive of them. If you get it wrong it can backfire dramatically, as Nestle recently found out, but it’s not difficult to learn the lessons from their mistakes.

At the B2B Marketing Symposium, Mike Charalambous, Senior Marketing Manager for The Carbon Trust said of social media, “The unsung hero is the listening”. Many brands simply look to sites like Twitter and Facebook as opportunities to broadcast, but the real winners are the brands who engage with their customers on these sites and listen to what they have to say.

What are your customers saying about you?

If you truly listen to your followers on such networks, they also become a key tool in providing the second benefit networking has to offer, becoming better equipped.

Are you monitoring Twitter and are you using it? Many companies shy away from social networks in fear of what might be said about them. But the conversation will be going on anyway, with or without you. So you may as well join in.

Last year I was Chairing The Retail Conference and speaking about engagement in social networks. During the panel debate one of the audience questioned representatives of two upmarket retailers whether they used Twitter. Both immediately dismissed the idea, saying that their customers would not be members of such a site.

I searched Twitter for mentions of both companies the next day. There were plenty of conversations about both, one of which saw a new tweet mentioning them almost every minute. Yet the companies themselves were unaware and disengaged.

If you are involved in the conversation you are in a much stronger position to influence not just the message you put out, but also the message others put out about you.

Social networks, and networking links generally, also help you to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to what’s happening in your industry and in your customers' industries. Follow key influencers and experts on Twitter, join the relevant groups on LinkedIn and go to events based around those industries.

In today’s fast-moving society if you wait until others are ready to share new ideas and developments with you through traditional media you’ll have a lot of catching up to do.

Better connected

The core function of any marketing team is, of course, to ensure that there are enough people who know about their brand and who want to purchase their products or services, making it easier for the sales team to convert leads into customers.

There is a lot of talk at the moment about the lack of alignment between sales and marketing teams. A colleague of mine, Rod Sloane, has just written a book about overcoming this issue and I have seen plenty of evidence within various companies I have spoken with of distrust between the two functions.

One has to question why this distrust exists and the extent to which the quality of the leads passed from marketing to sales plays a role. I am sure that many marketeers will immediately become defensive at the suggestion, and I am sure that quality of leads is far from the whole story. However, if conversion rates from leads passed through is consistently high, surely sales teams will be more inclined to follow up appropriately.

I am a great believer in the importance of high quality referrals in growing any business. In most industries, referrals typically enjoy a much stronger conversion rate than other forms of lead-generation. Unfortunately, little time is spent considering how to generate such leads and very few businesses currently have an effective strategy designed to deliver referrals.

Most referral strategies I come across rely either on asking a prospect who else they know who might be interested (which is poor lead generation at best, not a referral strategy) or offering incentives for existing customers to refer. Neither is likely to attract much success.

If the marketing, sales and account management functions within a business can work together to nurture their networks and target the referrals they need, the results can be extraordinary. A focused, targeted strategy, based on building trust and understanding with potential referrers and then asking for introductions based on who people know, can deliver a stream of high quality leads who are ready to buy as soon as the salesman calls.

Understanding the networks both inside and outside an organisation, and how they link together to provide connections to key influencers and decision makers can help any organisation reach their target market far more effectively.

It was clear throughout the Marketing Symposium that Deborah Biscomb’s view of a change to marketing was shared by many, both on the platform and among the audience. Lisa Hutt, Senior Director for EMEA Marketing for Salesforce.com reinforced the view when she said “This is a new era of collaboration”.

It’s time that networking was taken seriously as part of the marketing mix, and that companies took the time to ask, “What’s our strategy”?

Well, what’s yours?

Andy is again speaking at the Ice Blue Sky B2B Marketing Symposium on 7th July 2011. Please visit: www.b2bsymposium.com

Labelled ‘One of Europe’s leading business networking strategists’ by the Financial Times, Andy Lopata helps businesses develop successful networking and referral generation strategies. Andy is the co-author of '...and Death Came Third! The Definitive Guide to Networking and Speaking in Public' and 'Recommended: How to Sell through Networking and Referrals'.

To find out more about how to pick the right networks, implement a successful networking strategy or how to generate more referrals, please visit our website www.lopata.co.uk or contact us at harvey@lopata.co.uk / 01992 450488.

Watch the video below featuring Jemima Gibbons of AAB Engage discussing ow social media can positively impact your business.