Word of mouth is the most effective form of marketing. People can't spread the word about you and your small business if they don't know you.
That's where networking comes in. Whether it's through a professional industry association, a local business group or a conference, networking offers a forum for prospective customers and colleagues to learn about you and your services or products.
It involves more than exchanging introductions and business cards. Professional marketing coach Charlie Cook at www.charliecook.net says most people waste the few moments they have with contacts by focusing on themselves.
"It's better to spend most of that time asking questions and collecting information," he says.
Cook recommends that every entrepreneur have a 30-second description of the problems his or her business solves. After that, the focus should be entirely on other people's business concerns, problems they want solved and unmet business needs. As the conversations unfold, you might find areas that overlap with the solutions you provide.
"If not, you can still make an impression by referring them to other people in your network who can help," Cook says. "They'll see you as a problem-solver and be more likely to provide you with referrals in return."
Networking doesn't end with the conversation. Cook recommends retaining a data file of networking information (several software programs are available to track networking contacts) and updating it as soon as possible after every contact.
Finally, although valuable business contacts can be made any time and anywhere, don't leave your strategy to chance.
"Identify the people you want to make contact with, whether prospects or potential marketing alliance partners, and make carefully researched efforts to build relationships," Cook says.
Stephen L. Rosenstein is co-chairman of the Greater Baltimore SCORE Chapter No. 3. Call 410-962-2233 to speak to a SCORE counselor or go to www.scorebaltimore.org. To send a question to SCORE, e-mail email@example.com.