Business networking serves many purposes: sales, general marketing, recruiting, job-hunting, knowledge exchange, and business development (strategic alliances, joint ventures, channel sales, etc.). Of these, business development is the one that it supports best, as business development and business networking are closely related.
Business development is often a low-risk or shared-risk proposition.We are constantly bombarded with marketing messages, and as a result, we put up defenses against anything that smacks of someone trying to sell us something. Try as we may to overcome it, there is still a "hunter-prey" undercurrent to many sales situations.
Business development, on the other hand, is about partnerships. You are rarely "sold" in a business development context - there is much more of a sense of coming together, exploring whether or not the relationship may be mutually beneficial, and working together to make it so. The risk proposition is much lower than in a sales situation. Sometimes the only risk involved is that of issuing a joint press release announcing the relationship. Neither company has to invest anything other than a small amount of time into the relationship until an appropriate customer opportunity arises. And even in strategic relationships that require more effort and expense, there is almost always shared risk and a strong sense of partnership.
This makes business development much "safer" in a business social situation than selling or marketing are. Suggestions of possible partnerships don't set off the automatic defense mechanisms that trigger when we detect that we are being sold or marketed to. It's always easier to talk about a partnership than a purchase.
The relationship is an end, not just a means. In sales, for all the talk of "relationship selling", the ultimate objective is still a sale. Satisfied customers buy more products and refer other prospects, but success for the individual salesperson is usually measured in sales, not relationships. For the business development professional, though, the relationship is an end, not just a means, i.e., that signed contract and joint press release mean that you, individually, have accomplished something. You continue to work with that partner to achieve other objectives for your business, but the relationship itself is your primary objective.
This again fits well with business networking, in which it is essential to see relationships as an end, not just a means. By building relationships with relevant and influential people, you will receive more support in achieving your business objectives, but often, the long-term benefits of a specific relationship may be unclear at the outset. The focus needs to be on the relationship itself, not just the short-term objectives you may achieve with that person.
Business development is opportunistic as well as strategic. You probably have a focused list of specific companies you want to partner with, or perhaps of specific types of relationships you're looking for, but business development is as much about exploring what's out there and how it potentially relates to your company as it is about meeting the specific objectives you have defined. You have to be constantly on the lookout for new products, services, and companies that would be complementary to yours.
Heightened awareness is also a key skill in business networking. Not only do you need to be on the lookout for opportunities for yourself, but also for opportunities to connect others based on a mutual interest or pairing someone with a need with someone who can fulfill it. In 2001, the company Scott Allen was working for did a multi-million-dollar merger that started with a Yahoo! Group conversation. Neither party was looking for that specific transaction, or even aware of each other's existence. But by simply being in the right place at the right time, and being aware of the conversations taking place and how they related to their companies, they were able to initiate a very large deal.