Networking is a critical part of growing your business, especially in a large and competitive industry like promotional products. There are plenty of opportunities to meet others—you could probably attend a networking event every night of the week if you wanted to. But what you will discover is that most of these events are a waste of your time.

I am not saying networking groups like Business Network International (BNI) and other lead-share and Chamber of Commerce groups are not worth it, because they are, to a degree—if you really hustle, follow up and know how to work it. But let’s be realistic—you’re in a room surrounded by other people who are more concerned about selling their stuff to you than hearing what you can offer them.

Many people who play the networking game will attend Chamber of Commerce events, or go to local networking events to get the word out on what they’re offering, but they are not taking a strategic approach. They are going about it blindly, hoping to get lucky and acquire some incoming leads.

The secret is to stop wasting your time by focusing on networking events that have the solid potential to benefit your business. I don’t just go to any networking event. I choose networking events where my prospective buyers hang out.

Cast a wide net to prospective clients, then position yourself as the go-to guy (or gal) so that when your clients are ready to buy, you are there and you’ve already built those relationships. Go where the buyers in your chosen, targeted industry go, and build relationships with them on their turf. 

I go to auto manufacturers’ events because that is a market in which I specialize. Where do real estate property managers hang out? That’s also where I’ll be, because they are another of my target markets.

The promotional products business is all about relationships. If the networking contacts you’ve made have a good relationship with you and think of you as an expert in their industry, when it comes time to place an order, they will remember that and call you.

Stop wasting your time with a haphazard networking approach. Go directly to the source—your buyers—and network strategically. 

Here are the top five ways to get engaged within your targeted buyer markets:

1.  Go to their local events.

2.  Volunteer at their events or on their local association boards.

3.  Exhibit at their local or national trade shows.

4.  Become a member of their local or national trade associations.

5.  Learn their business and become an expert in what they do.

Networking is not about telling people what you do or what you are selling. It’s about building meaningful, long-term relationships based on trust. Don’t just see these people as buyers; see them as human beings, each with their own dreams and fears. How can you relate to them? How can you be of service to them? 

I take the same approach when it comes to networking as I do when it comes to selling. I target niche audiences where I can build long-term, meaningful relationships. And, as a result, I have been able to build client relationships that are now going on 20 years.  Everyone knows that building a solid book of business in the promotional products industry is about long-term relationships and repeat orders. This is my approach.

So, get out there and start building some targeted, meaningful relationships and watch your sales skyrocket. 

Josh Frey is CEO of distributor On Sale Promos in Falls Church, Virginia, and originator of The Swag Coach™, a step-by-step guide for starting and growing a distributorship. To date through the program, he has coached and helped others launch 18 businesses in the promotional products industry and in other industries since 2012. 

He is a frequent industry writer and speaker who has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Entrepreneur, Inc. online, The Washington Business Journal and Advantages.

He is also a regular guest speaker in the George Washington University MBA program, sharing entrepreneurial experiences and advice, as well as a guest lecturer to student entrepreneurship clubs at Georgetown University, University of Maryland and GWU.

Frey will speak at PPAI’s SPARK Conference this month in Nashville, Tennessee.