Effective Networking in a One-Horse Town
[Editor's note: If you recently lost your job, take a look at Wise Bread's collection of tips and resources for the recently laid off.]
My dad still conducts business via “a handshake and a smile” and prides himself on being a man of his word. Similarly, many of the business people in my rural township enjoy meeting potential business partners and clients (preferably over a cup of coffee) prior to even discussing a deal. This can make networking a bit of a challenge, as time doesn’t always permit for long courting sessions before making a pitch. There are some very unique ways to make quality contacts in a small town, however, and they are really as simple as they seem.
Know your Chamber. The Chamber of Commerce exists in most small towns. They usually consist of the most prominent business people and represent generations of business partnerships. What better way to get to know business folk than with a nice meal and some casual banter? Check your local paper for the head of your local Chamber and see how you can join. Even if you don’t get any solid leads from the members themselves, you will get the scoop on everything and everyone in the community (and this can mean early entry into potential deals.)
Post Flyers (Really). Many small towns still allow flyers to be pinned to the bulletin boards near the entrances and exits of their busiest storefronts. Public libraries, senior centers and municipal buildings will usually allow you to post your contact info or service descriptions simply by asking. Be sure to provide “tear-off” tags so that they can take your info with you!
Join the Festivities. Getting the word out about your service or product may be as simple as attending a party. If everyone in town is hyped about the next rodeo, charity fundraiser, farmer’s market or bicentennial bash, be sure to show up! Bring lots of business cards, sponsor a booth, or walk the parade route with goodies in tow. Small towners love to know who their neighbors are, and if you can make your business stand out, they’ll ask for you by name!
Offer a Free Service. The best way to get business is to give something away. This is especially helpful for products or services that may not be seen as “necessary” to a community. Looking to sell web services? Give the school district 15 hours of design services in exchange for a good word. Do you work on cars? Offer a simple “how-to” class to local moms on how to monitor tire pressure and fix a flat. If you can seem valuable to a community, they will come to you.
Take Advantage of Cheap Advertising. Do you know the difference between a ¼ page ad in my local paper and the nearest metro paper? I’m not completely sure, but it could be anywhere from several hundred to $1000. Market to those closest to you with the medium they read the most. Invest in local ads that will be seen by everyone in your small town. Get listed in your local business directory. Don’t skimp on the even the least-circulated publishings.
Don’t Screw Up. You know the saying that it takes a whole boat-load of good deeds to make up for one bad one, don’t you? This holds especially true for smaller communities. Do one bad job, and you’re looking at a really hard road ahead. Take your time to be sure that you understand what is expected of you before you fulfill your agreement. Follow up to be sure the client is happy. Don’t be afraid to make good on a misunderstanding immediately.
Ask for Referrals. The flip side of the previous rule is perhaps the sweetest part of doing business locally. If you made someone very happy with your skills, ask if they know of anyone they could refer to you! The best businesses have a whole community behind them and willing to give repeat business. Trust is still your best networking tool.
As with anyone, I enjoy the high-tech and worldwide scope that the internet and social media has given me and my business. Even the most connected of entrepreneurs know how to keep it close to home, however. If your neighbors and friends don’t know what you do, isn’t it time that you told them?