Whether you’ve just started your own business (congratulations!) or you’ve been at it for a while, you need to place yourself in front of your potential customers and educate them about your product or service. Networking is a proven way to do this.

If you’re new to networking, let me be clear: it’s not about showing up at any cocktail party, benefit, panel discussion or conference and aimlessly wandering around shaking hands and handing out business cards … and then quitting because “it doesn’t work.” Effective networking involves a carefully thought-out strategy for establishing a consistent presence in front of the people who want and need what you offer.

Here’s a time-tested strategy for leveraging the power of networking:

  1. Define your audience.  If you’re an IT services provider, your potential customers are not just businesses that own computers. If you’re a dentist, your potential customers are not just people with teeth. Without a defined approach, you don’t have a target to aim for and you lack a pathway to building a clientele. So, the IT provider might target small businesses with 10-20 employees and the dentist might target patients within a 20-mile radius. A personal trainer might focus on young mothers looking to shed post-pregnancy weight. In our case, we decided to focus on translation for the transactional needs of attorneys, banks, multinational corporations, mortgage lenders, insurance companies and other business verticals.
  2. Find the groups or organizations that cater to your chosen audience. Once you’ve defined your audience and are clear on your value proposition, try different networking groups and observe the level of enthusiasm for your offer. A group can be as broad as a chamber of commerce, or as narrow as an association for human resources professionals or one for customs brokers. The key is that it be a good fit for your businesses. If you don’t belong in the core category, you can usually join as an associate member.
  3. Make yourself visible. Whether an associate or a core member, once you’re in, figure out how to add value. In order to be welcome, you must contribute to the mission. Volunteer on committees. Run for office. Raise money. Do things that put you in the spotlight, and develop a reputation for delivering results. Offer your talents and your connections to bring benefits to the group’s members. Think of ways to help them bring revenue to their own businesses, and introduce them to potential clients.
  4. Be in it for the long haul. To reap the benefits of networking, you have to view the entire process as an ongoing journey. It’s possible that you’ll knock it out of the ballpark right away, but my experience has been that it takes time. Think of networking as an activity to be incorporated into the course of your business life, and focus on the giving, not the receiving. Have faith that the process will yield results … because it will.
  5. Know when to cut your losses. Despite your best efforts and best intentions, you may find that the group or groups you’re involved in are not the right fit. You may not have developed a rapport with the members, or you may not be getting referrals. Conversely, you may find yourself enjoying it immensely without deriving any financial benefit. Think about what you want and whether you’re satisfied with what you’re getting. You may opt for looking for a group with a better chance of generating business, or you may opt to reap the nonfinancial benefits of having strong personal relationships. The bottom line is, if it’s not working for you, don’t waste your money or your time.Keep in mind that networking is one of many tactics that make up the sales process (personal calls, marketing, and promotion, advertising, social media outreach, etc.), and one tactic alone will not be enough to make your business grow. But done right, networking can be a powerful engine that can propel your business, lead to strong relationships, and bring visibility to you and your company.