Social NetworkingIf the advent of social networking has shown us anything, it is that it’s not necessary to be a global brand with a stratospheric marketing budget in order to take advantage of its benefits. In fact, not only do social channels drastically reduce the costs of marketing, they have provided a veritable digital wonderland of opportunity to make connections and raise the profile of an organisation, no matter the size.

But does the ownership of a Twitter or LinkedIn account necessarily equate to smart networking? In other words, are you getting a little too bogged down in the world of likes and follows; missing the overall aim of creating a useful network in order to grow and develop your business?

A study commissioned by accountancy firm Kingston Smith and conducted by the Universities of Surrey and Greenwich, reported that although almost 90% of SMEs were using social networking and considered communication on LinkedIn to be of the same level of importance as traditional networking activities, more than 35% of SMEs do not believe their use of these networks to be effective.

So, how can SMEs realise the full potential and scope of networking? And is it really that important in order to grow business?

Of course, we are well versed in the knowledge that social platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter are excellent for establishing brand presence and engaging with current and potential customers. However, the aforementioned study revealed that the most successful SMEs are those that remain aware of the need to avoid getting too wrapped up in discussions on LinkedIn and keep the endgame in sight – the need to generate leads, nurture contacts and find customers.

Twitter is cited as another clear example of a networking tool which can prove highly effective (if utilised) as one element of a carefully planned campaign, alongside social media such as a company blog, but can end up proving useless should tweeting end up taking precedence over legitimate business activity.

The power of face-to-face

The research further revealed that networking for SMEs should not begin and end in the virtual sphere and the power of face-to-face networking should certainly not be forgotten or underestimated. We may be living in a digital world, but limiting your networking to online connections and neglecting networking at events, conferences, seminars and the like, may prove to be a grave mistake.

Instead, SMEs are encouraged to incorporate online and offline networking as part of their overall strategy for the greatest effect, particularly if they are hoping to hold their own against larger competitors. An effective networking strategy is becoming just as important as a clear marketing strategy in order to make the most of time and gain the most social capital.

The benefits of networking

So, just how important is all this networking malarkey for SMEs?

SME insurer, Premierline, released an infographic earlier this year which reveals that over 25% of SMEs source more than half their new business through networking each year and a whopping 92% found referral groups successful for generating new business leads. Furthermore, 52% of respondents found engaging with current clients had served to deliver new business leads.

With figures like these, you can see why it is essential not to put networking on the back-burner. Unconvinced? Here are some of the top-rated benefits that networking, both online and offline, offers to SMEs:

1. Builds a community around your brand

Engaging with customers on social media allows you to really get to know them, build bonds with your brand and listen and act upon feedback. Stats from HarpInteractive reveal that 43% of online customers choose to follow or like their favourite brands on social media – take advantage.

2. Increases traffic to your website

By engaging your community with relevant, quality content, you build authority in your specific field and bring those who want to hear more to your door. Statistics from Hubspot demonstrate businesses with 300-1000 followers on Twitter get 5x as many visits to their site compared to those with less than 25. And this valuable traffic may well result in more leads or new customers.

3. Provides inspiration and insight

Sharing ideas with other business owners or leaders in your field can help ignite your creativity, gain new perspectives or learn new tips and tricks which can help move your business forward.

4. More contacts = more opportunities

One of the greatest things about networking with new people is the unexpected doors it can open. Discussion with associates might pave the way to opportunities, collaborations and new ideas you might never have considered or had access to before.

By putting strategic networking high on your priority list, you are gathering the support and attention necessary to grow your business. After all, no SME is an island.