BNI: Great Networking Opportunity, or Waste of Time and Money?

As a small business owner, there’s little doubt you’ve heard of Business Network International (BNI), a networking and referral membership group for small businesses, which has regional branches all over the world and more than 120,000 active members. In its local groups, members from different industries meet weekly to discuss their businesses and generate referrals for the other BNI members. The organization boasts that it will dramatically increase your new business leads — but it also demands weekly meeting attendance and hefty fees that often exceed $1,000 a year. So is BNI worth the hype?

It all depends on your business. For some, it’s proven to be a valuable source of ongoing leads and a heavy revenue generator: “BNI has generated close to $3 million for our construction company,” says Eric Wells of Wells Works Construction in Springfield, Missouri, for example.

But for others, it’s just not worth the investment. Here’s what to consider:

1) Is your customer base local? If you’re a plumber, exterminator, or other service provider who works within a specific region, BNI can be a great bet for scoring new referrals. But if you’re in a field where your customers aren’t always local — for instance, graphic design or e-commerce — your marketing efforts may be better spent online.
2) Are you too niche for the group? The most successful BNI members tend to be the ones who provide services that everyone will use at one point or another: for instance, an insurance agent, a mortgage broker, or a real estate agent. But if you provide a service with more limited appeal, you may not see much benefit from joining. Jeannie Bush, an electrolysis provider, quit BNI because “members just wouldn’t talk about permanent hair removal.”
3) Are you prepared to actively engage with the group? BNI works best for those who put the time and effort in to learn about other members’ businesses and generate referrals for them. Many of your own referrals will come in as a result of what you’ve done to help your fellow business owners. “Making it a weekly priority, attending every meeting, meeting with members at other times during the week, inviting visitors, and trying to bring a referral to other members every month is the best way to get the most out of it,” says Sarah Hays, owner of YuDu Concierge Services in Charleston, South Carolina.

If you’re still not sure whether your business would make a good fit, contact your local branch to arrange to attend a meeting for free.

Have you taken part in a BNI group? Share your experiences with us in the comments.

About Kathryn Hawkins

Kathryn Hawkins is a principal at the content marketing agency Eucalypt Media. She's written about business, marketing, and entrepreneurship for publications including BNET, TheAtlantic.com, Inc.com, and owns and operates the positive news site Gimundo. Follow her on Twitter at @kathrynhawkins.
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