Netowrking for Small BizIf there’s one thing that can make or break a small business, it’s networking. Working with a group is almost always more powerful than working alone. But what’s the typical problem for most entrepreneurs and solopreneurs? Networking doesn’t always feel easy.

How do you make new connections in your area, for example? Whom should you be talking to about your business? Is social media worthwhile or a waste of time?

To help answer these questions, here’s a look at five specific ways to network as a small company. Try these strategies to start reaching out.

Think Local: If you run a business that caters predominantly or largely to clients in your geographic area, use that local focus to your advantage. Join “shop local” initiatives. Partner with other local businesses to promote one another to customers. Take part in local business events and promotions. By strengthening relationships in your community, you drive business both for yourself and others.

Stop Compartmentalizing: Networking isn’t “an additional activity you need to add to the tasks you have to do every day,” says longtime marketer Hank Blank at Behooved. “Networking is a way of life.” Rather than divvying the hours in your day into tasks and projects and networking, consider that as a representative for your business, you are always networking — or, at least, you can be. The person you meet at a party, the photographer you hire for your family pictures, and the guy standing next to you at Starbucks are all people you may engage and get to know. You never know who could be a prospect until you interact with him or her.

Use Social Media: Put the networking back in social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter by remembering that your activity there is more than marketing — it’s also a way to connect with colleagues and customers. “The real definition of networking to me is building relationships before you need them,” says Diane Darling, founder and CEO of Boston-based Effective Networking, Inc.

Building relationships involves both talking and listening — so rather than merely posting update after update, respond to those that other users share. Follow users who fit your target audience: If you’re the National Honey Board, follow food bloggers, restaurants and media outlets. If you’re the Massachusetts tourism board, follow locals who talk about your area, travel writers, travel bloggers, and so on. The idea is to follow people who will be interested in what your business offers — then pay attention to what they’re saying, and respond to them. Doing so builds relationships, and those relationships are the key to small business networking.

Engage Outside Your Industry: It’s easy to want to spend time swapping ideas with others in your industry — they understand what you do, and they care about the things you care about — but networking with others in your field can go only so far. It’s not your colleagues who buy your products. Truth be told, they’re actually your competitors.

Rather than solely networking with the other marketers or landscaping professionals or managers in your industry, remember to be your own brand ambassador to others, too, because, as Gay Gaddis writes at Forbes, “No one is more passionate about your business than you are.” Use your passion and expertise to your advantage, to win over new prospects in various positions and roles. That’s the kind of networking that drives results.

Always Follow Up: One of the most important parts of networking is follow-up. “Regardless of the type of networking, the key is quickly turning those new contacts into active connections in your network,” says CEO of online community Manta, Pamela Springer, at Open Forum. So reach back out to new contacts via email within 24 hours. Refresh their memory of who you are and what you talked about, and then slowly build the relationship by initiating another step — such as suggesting a project you talked about working on together or providing some information they said they’d like. Quick turnaround is usually much better received than slow turnaround — and it fuels faster connections.

Whatever your small business, the simple steps outlined in this post provide a clear blueprint for getting started with networking. When you make it your mission to build relationships with prospects and colleagues, you reap benefits far into the future.

Your Thoughts

How could you network better? What steps will you take? What other networking practices have you seen to be helpful and effective?