B2B marketing is hard. You have to choose a target audience, develop compelling messages, disseminate them through the right channels, measure the program’s effectiveness, and adjust the marketing plan based on real-world results.

Some companies try to differentiate themselves with proprietary content, while others host webinars or events. However, there is an amazingly effective marketing tactic you may not have considered: invitation-only peer networks for key clients and prospects.

What do we mean by a peer network? In short, invitation-only groups of 16-24 executives who should be meeting regularly but probably aren’t. Some peer networks will include competitors—that’s ok. There are almost always important, non-competitive issues for a group to discuss.

To be clear, we are not referring to one-off roundtables or seminars where a firm’s “thought leaders” walk clients through canned presentation decks. We are not advocating awkward, transactional “networking” sessions. And we are not talking about content-lite dinners, golf outings, or ski trips.

Rather, it’s about creating an environment in which a peer community can thrive over time, and where insights and relationships emerge naturally. Network sponsors join their clients as a “fly on the wall” for regular conversations about:

  • Industry trends and developments: not just what is happening, but also why and so what
  • Internal practices: how clients’ companies operate, and the constraints they face
  • Personal and professional development: how clients think about their careers and their lives

Peer networks are powerful because they are designed around clients’ needs—not yours. Let’s face it: executives receive an endless stream of invitations. Most could join a dinner, seminar, conference, or webcast every day of the week.

But time is scarce. A peer network will only break through the clutter if it is special—with the right people, the right topics, the right venue, the right preparation, and the right facilitation.

The best networks draw on a set of core principles that enhance trust and build vibrant executive communities. These include:

  • Limited group size, with membership by invitation only
  • Regular cadence, with meetings scheduled around members’ availability
  • Agendas developed with member input to address relevant topics
  • Focus on active discussion, not passive presentations or briefings
  • Clear confidentiality principles to ensure candor

As you might imagine, distinctive peer networks don’t just happen. Sponsors need to invest time and resources. They also need to engage with clients before, during, and after meetings—to build trust, develop a compelling agenda, keep the conversation moving and on-point, and capture meeting notes. Consequently, networks demand senior-level commitment, and can’t be executed by an events team alone.

Despite their cost, the return on a peer network investment is undeniable. And we know of a few other ways to spend 4–8 hours at a time with your best clients, several times a year, indefinitely.

In addition to meaningful (but non-measurable) benefits like “brand enhancement” and “better relationships,” network sponsors routinely enjoy hard/financial returns on their investment. Over time, sponsors typically:

  • Acquire new clients. Networks almost always include both current and prospective clients.
  • Retain existing clients. Sponsors avoid defections by reinforcing their commitment and creating a regular touchpoint to address issues before they escalate.
  • Reduce pricing pressure. Clients who enjoy close relationships with vendors are less likely to squeeze margins. They are also more likely to give the benefit of the doubt when conflicts arise.
  • Expand client share of wallet. Clients may not be fully aware of a vendor’s capabilities. Sponsors often find new ways to serve client needs with their existing portfolio of products and services.
  • Identify new ways to serve market needs. By listening carefully to their clients, sponsors identify new offerings to satisfy previously unknown “jobs-to-be-done.” Moreover, these solutions can be deployed across the entire market, not just the network.

In the end, sponsoring a network sends a powerful, unspoken message to the market: We care about you and want to support your success. It is about listening, not pitching.

Sponsors offer something of value with little asked in return. This builds trust and generates goodwill. And since your clients are likely to convene anyway—with or without you—network sponsors are guaranteed a seat at the table. That’s how you win.

About the Author: James Millar is the author of BUILDING BRIDGES: The Case for Executive Peer Networks (July 2018). He is the founder of SkyBridge Associates, a company that designs, creates, and leads the executive peer networks that leaders need to build authentic relationships and share valuable insights. He is a former director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard Business School.