Sunday, June 6, 2010

Networking, marketing on site

by John Yantis The Arizona Republic Jun. 3, 2010 12:00 AM

When a colleague suggested to Gia Heller that her personality was perfect for booking clients through business leads groups, she remembers wanting nothing to do with the idea.

Images that went through her mind included coffee meetings with a half-dozen women in similar businesses. The meet-and-greets didn't offer enough customers for the time and effort it would take to attend them, she thought. She'd shake a hand or two and hope to land a single client.

"I didn't want my high-powered women friends to have to take out an hour of their day (for face-to-face meetings)," Heller said. "That just didn't seem engaging to me and it didn't seem like I would be offering value."

So the commercial real-estate professional began exploring social media and researching search-engine optimization on the Internet. That resulted in Arizona Women Networking, a growing Valley group whose members are part of an all-female business directory that focuses entirely on blogs and social-media sites including Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to promote their businesses.

"It takes a handshake to the very next level," said Heller, group president and founder. "Instead of trying to get the business of these ladies, they are basically a sales force for me and vice-versa. When I shake your hand, I'm shaking all of the hands of all your contacts."

Social networks offer a variety of benefits for those looking to land clients, said Mike Denning, professor of entrepreneurial marketing at Arizona State University at the Tempe campus. He said people with similar interests, for example chefs, gardeners and businesswomen, gather together in cyberspace.

"It's an effective way for people to create awareness because it self-profligates," he said. "For an entrepreneur, it's an extraordinarily cost-effective way to do marketing communication."

Arizona Women Networking formed in July. Membership included Heller and three others. Today, it has 50 members and up to 35 requests to join per month.

There is no cost to participate. The group meets face-to-face once a month.

Membership is by invitation only. Those interested submit a request via the group's website and an interview and orientation follows. As many as 50 women left or were removed from the group because they "did not fulfill their social-media commitment," according to Heller.

"They weren't blogging, they did not have Facebook," she said. "We provide them all the tools. They were just slack in performing."

Additionally, members' sites are policed regularly to insure that they are the "expert" in the social-media market within their respective fields.

"If you need an accountant in Scottsdale, I only have one to refer you to," Heller said. "There's no cannibalization of leads."

Heller said the advantage of social networking over advertising is a Web presence group members receive. Instead of cold-calling or sending flyers, referrals give them an edge on the competition because of common acquaintances or other factors.

Ana González, owner of Images by Ana and Lorenzo Photography, found the group during an Internet search after relocating to the Valley from Florida.

"I had to start my business from scratch," she said, adding that traditional advertising in magazines costs as much as $2,000 monthly. She found similar networking groups but they charged fees or had few members, she said.

Since she became a member of AWN in February, González said she's been referred to 15 customers.

The group reaches an estimated 25,000 Arizonans. Fifteen members were added this month and another dozen interviews are scheduled, Heller said.

Networking, marketing on site

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