Recently I interviewed over 30 successful entrepreneurial women for an article that I was writing. The lessons and learning from these interviews were fascinating and eye-opening and, as you can imagine, the motivations and the methods they used to market their businesses were as broad and diverse as the women themselves.

One message that consistently jumped out though, regardless of situation, background, race or results, was the importance of networking. Networking is something I’ve done a lot of over the past five years, both as host and attendee. But, until the interviews, I’d never appreciated how powerful a tool networking really is, or how it can be leveraged to propel your business forward.

Here are my top reason why networking is so important to grow your business…

1. The opportunity to connect with real people

Regardless of whether your business is online, offline, national, local or global it’s important to connect. Really connect, not just the odd Facebook message or group email. I have a large group of online followers on social media but the people I have the strongest relationships with, and do the most business with, are people I’ve met in person. We’ve had real conversations and grown to know, like and trust each other.

2. Relationship building

Building relationships takes time and consistency, and you need to put the work in to build “know/like/trust” with your contacts. Regular networking provides the perfect opportunity to meet and connect with key contacts in a meaningful way. As you build those all-important relationships, you’ll establish yourself as trustworthy, be seen as a serious player in your niche, and you’ll find doors magically open and new opportunities present themselves. Nobody likes the flash in the pan types who turn up at networking meetings, blindly handing out their business cards to anyone who’ll take one, never to be seen again. Relationship value = zero!

3. Meet potential joint venture partners

You never know when you first meet someone whether they might be a potential customer, competitor or Joint Venture partner. Or potentially, over time, a new friend! Running your own business can be lonely at times and forming allies and a support network is so important. Finding people with skills that compliment your own is incredibly powerful and will propel your business forward.If motivation or procrastination are a challenge for you, consider finding a business buddy. Schedule a regular call where you hold each other to account for the goals and deadlines you’ve set yourselves, and support each other.

4. Establish yourself as an expert

Networking is a great way to establish yourself as an expert. Be consistently helpful and share valuable resources.How to establish yourself as an expert? Ask people what they’re struggling with. The answer might seem obvious to you. For example, if you’re a WordPress expert and someone is trying to link their blog posts to Twitter, suggesting a free plug-in that will achieve this for them in one click will be incredibly valuable. You’ve provided the missing piece of the puzzle and you’ll be perceived as an expert.

5. Understand your market better

Networking provides a golden opportunity to ask questions, listen to the problems and discussions people are having, and get a feel for the hot topics and trends in your niche. If you’re networking with other suppliers, find out what issues they’re facing and where the opportunities are in the market. This is market research, par excellence.

6. Get free help

One thing that a number of my entrepreneurial women remarked on is how surprised they were at the openness and willingness to share of the people they met at networking meetings. Many of us, myself included, have come from corporate backgrounds where people are protective of their expertise and ideas and afraid of competition. This isn’t the case in the small business, investor and entrepreneurial spheres. There is much more an attitude of comradeship, sharing and mutual support. Rather than worrying about the competition, we tend to view others in our field as potential partners and ask ourselves how we might work together.

An unexpected bonus of networking is the opportunity to get those tricky questions answered. Or to find someone who can help with something you’re stuck on. That challenging website glitch that’s been frustrating you all day might be solved with one conversation with a technical expert. Or, at the very least, you might be pointed to a place or person that can help.

7. Find people like you!

As much as you love what you do, and are excited about your business, there are others, sometimes our own family and friends, whose eyes glaze over at the mention of autoresponders or the latest backend sales strategy.

But, when you’re networking with like-minded people, you can talk about your ideas and strategies to your heart’s content. And, what’s very motivating and energising is when you find people who share your enthusiasm for membership sites and sales funnels who you can bounce ideas off. You might even come up with some ideas you hadn’t thought of!

8. Connect with potential customers

Never forget that you don’t know who’s in the room. You might not realise it but you could meet potential customers even at the most unlikely events. Just talk to everyone about what you do.

9. Expand your sphere of influence

Taking this a step further, don’t forget that networking isn’t just about the people in the room that you talk to. You can significantly expand your sphere of influence by telling everyone what you do and how you help people. The person you’re speaking to might not be interested in what you do, but they might know someone who is.

10. Golden nuggets

Many networking meetings have a guest speaker and this is a great opportunity to learn about a new topic and to educate yourself. Even meetings that might seem basic, or you’ve heard the speaker before, will give you lots of golden nuggets and ideas to take away for your business. Questions from the audience can provide some great learning too.

So, if you’re not already networking make it a goal to attend at least two networking meetings a month. Meetup.comis a great way to find meetings in your area, and many Facebook and LinkedIn Groups have live meetings.

This article is Part One of a two-part series – I hope you enjoy it and keep an eye out for next month’s article where I’ll share my tips for maximising your networking potential in “Networking: Top Ten Ways To Take Your Business To The Next Level”