A lot of people assume that referral groups and other networking organizations are only for those who are young and hungry to grow their businesses. However, studies don't support that line of thinking. In fact, a survey of networking group members conducted by Steve Brewer of St. Thomas University, as part of a master's thesis, showed that 74 percent of respondents owned their own business. About one-third of the members were older than 50 while only 10 percent were younger than 30 years old.
However, when analyzing the ages of respondents, we found that 63 percent were age 40 or older. Clearly, this would indicate that the age of the average person in networking groups is higher than some would expect. So, from empirical data and my own observations over 20 years in the business of "networking," I firmly believe that the seasoned business professional is most likely to recognize and seek out the long-term benefits of a referral-marketing strategy.
In any strong networking organization, selecting qualified members is important. Good groups tend to select more experienced people over inexperienced ones because they know seasoned professionals are more likely to bring their own established network. They are also more likely to be good referrals, because experienced people are typically better at what they do for a living.
An experienced referral -- recommending someone who is seasoned at the work they are being referred to do -- is a trait that is even more important to the networking group than having a person who just has a large "network." For instance, one of my colleagues who is currently serving as an officer in a networking group recently had to caution the committee in charge of admitting new members. In one case, a visitor introduced herself as an executive coach who had just left a career in advertising. She said she was in the process of being certified and wanted to join a networking group to get her first "paid" clients.
The membership committee was excited about her "huge" network of colleagues from her former career. But what about her coaching ability? Was she a good coach? The president asked the committee members how they could refer this coach to the contacts who would trust them to give a solid referral if it was not yet known how good a coach this applicant actually was. In this case, the risk of a member who was very inexperienced in the profession she was representing far outweighed the benefits of her large network.
Striking a Balance
Note, however, that a good networking group should still strive to seek a balance between "old pros" and "newbies." Groups with only seasoned people can be too laid back and their members aren't in the startup phase anymore. They often don't perceive new prospects as being as important to the business as they once were. Meanwhile, a group made up mostly of new people tends to be too frenetic.
In well-balanced groups, we've seen very successful partnering between established professionals and younger, newer, "junior" professionals. ("Junior" networkers should still be good at the job or service they are trying to sell, so that members can be comfortable referring business to them.) When the networking veteran takes the newer partner under his or her wing in a mentoring relationship, coaching that person in the finer points of word-of-mouth marketing, the junior professional gains business acumen as they accumulate real-world experience, and both begin to see more referrals coming in. It's a real win-win.