Last week I was in a networking meeting with another professional, learning about each other's industries, and we got into a discussion about the funny realities of business networking.
I was telling him about my time in my legal practice, when I used to do a ton of networking at any opportunity that I got.
When I started practice, I was at a firm where I was really working to build up my book of business, and even after I later joined a well-established firm, that networking habit stuck.
I ran to every event I could, whether that was through a professional group like BNI, a Board of Trade or Chamber of Commerce, or any other low-cost sort of event.
When the time came to tell a conversation partner that I was an employment lawyer, the response was always the same: "Where were you 12/6/3 months ago when my husband/partner/neighbor/cousin/friend needed you?"
I would always chuckle and apologize for not being there at the time, but tell them that I'm here now and readily available to assist should they find anyone in need again.
I think of this often, but now that I'm a small business owner with my marketing goggles on, I see things through a different lens.
When anyone would ask me this question (and nearly everyone I spoke to did), they were really trying to teach me two key things about marketing.
1) Just Show Up
Let's dissect the reality of the question for a minute. If I met someone at a local board of trade event for example, and they asked me where I was three months ago, my answer wouldn't have been much different than it was that same day.
I was there - they just didn't know it.
I was already working in the region most likely, going along and building up my client base, except they didn't know about me yet.
As a small business with a limited marketing budget, you can't afford to be all things to all people. You likely will not be able to afford a blitz multimedia campaign with constant primetime advertising on radio and television.
What you can do, though, is show up. Investing time and even a modest budget into your marketing outreach can help ensure that your presence is felt when someone needs your services. That includes showing up in person and networking, but it also means showing up online and investing in your digital presence.
If you show up to the point where your clients know you and know what you do, they'll show up when they need you.
2) It's not who you know, it's who they know
This was a sales lesson that my father taught me years ago and it stuck. It's also why I keep a photo of me with a former US President on my bookshelf behind me for video calls.
What these people were telling me though was that even though I needed to be marketing to them, they might not be my future clients.
Instead, they were the connection to my future clients. If they knew, liked, and trusted me then they would have no problem referring me to the people who did need my services.
When I write content for a business I explain that while your content (website/blogs/newsletters etc.) should be geared towards your target audience, the writing should be accessible to just about anybody.
You never know who's going to come across your material. They may not be in the market for what you have to offer, but frequently their next door neighbor will turn out to be your biggest client.
Content is what can help you 'show up,' and do so in a way that's accessible to a broad audience. Even if you have the opportunity to show up in person, which is a rare luxury these days, people that you meet will go check your website and review your content to make sure that you are the real deal. If you're networking online, your digital presence is the way to put your best foot forward.
Remember that life is complicated, but your marketing can be simple. No one needs to walk away from reading your blog thinking they can become your competition tomorrow. Rather, they should walk away knowing that you're the expert, and if they don't need to talk to you right away then they probably no someone who does.