Does the mention of a business networking event conjure up images of sleazy salespeople forcing their business cards on you? Many of us would do almost anything to avoid making small talk with complete strangers.
However, participating in business networking opportunities can open up valuable new opportunities for your business. It’s a proven way of building relationships with those who can use your services or refer you to others. And it doesn’t need to be painful – as long as you take the right approach.
Here are 5 business networking tactics that help you get the best results, with the least amount of pain.
1. Shop around for the right fit
Not all business events are created equal, and not all of them are right for you. You need to find the ones that suit.
Hate early starts? Avoid breakfast networking meetings. Instead, look for sundowners and after hours events. Non-working hours already busy with family obligations? Check out daytime events like morning teas and lunches, which might suit you better.
Remember, any occasion that will bring together other potential customers or collaborators is a potential networking event — even if it isn’t called one. Small business workshops, industry conferences, golf days, speaking events and local government forums are all opportunities to catch up and form relationships with the right people.
Platforms such as Eventbrite and Meetup.com as well as your local chamber of commerce and industry are good places to search for events that you might like to attend. You can also ask other friends in business what events they find valuable.
2. Build your own
If you can’t find an event that suits you, don’t give up. There is nothing stopping you from creating your own networking opportunity and inviting others. Aside from being able to organise an event at a time and place that suits you, there are some other benefits. Running a networking event can get you and your business known among peers and potential customers – think of it as a branding exercise.
Some of the best networking events are built around shared interests, for example brainstorming tech start up ideas or developing digital marketing skills, so think of some knowledge you would like to share or build, to create a theme for your event.
You can list events on some of the event and ticketing websites mentioned above, or create a Facebook event if you have a good sized following to promote it to. Many cafés have spaces that small groups can meet in, provided you buy a coffee or some food. If you belong to a co-working space, you may also be able to host a meeting there.
If it is very difficult for you to attend events regularly, online networking can also be effective with the right strategy. Look for quality Facebook groups like the SBDC’s I’m a small business owner in Western Australia or topical groups on LinkedIn. Although online networking lacks some of the immediacy of face-to-face events, the same general rules apply — look to add value and create long term beneficial relationships with other business owners.
3. Check your attitude
Business networking can get a bad name if attendees go about it the wrong way. A networking event is not an opportunity to sell at any cost, but rather to build relationships. If you focus on what you can give other attendees, rather than what you can get, you are on the right track.
When meeting other participants for the first time, focus on learning something about them beyond the superficial to see if you have common interests, goals or customers. There might be ways you can help each other out.
You can also share helpful information such as useful resources you have found or training you have attended that might benefit other business people.
Part of the art of networking is learning to speak to people for the right amount time, which can take a little practice if you aren’t used to it. The key is not to monopolise (or get stuck with) one person for the entire event and make several key contacts. However, you need to spend enough time with each person to have a meaningful conversation.
When you finish speaking with each person, ask for their business card if you will have trouble remembering their name to follow up later.
4. Follow up
It is a wasted effort attending networking events if you don’t follow up potential relationships afterwards.
A widely accepted way of maintaining contact is to reach out to the people you spoke to on LinkedIn. You can reiterate that you enjoyed meeting them at the event and ask any further questions you have or supply further information that they asked for or discussed with you, such as an interesting article or a link to some business training. Keep the conversation light and avoid any hard sell until you have formed a relationship.
If appropriate, you can invite your new contact to catch up at another networking event or for coffee to learn more about each other’s business.
5. Rinse and repeat
Like many business endeavours, effective networking requires consistency. However, it also needs to work for you and your business.
Creating a calendar of networking events that you wish to attend can be a useful strategy, particularly if you take the time to score each event by how valuable it was afterwards. This will allow you to use your time effectively by attending those that work best for you. When rating each event, take into account both the quality of relationships you form and how much you enjoyed it.
Business networking can seem awkward in beginning, especially for more introverted people who aren’t naturally comfortable in a crowd. But in time, the trusted relationships you form can lead to valuable business opportunities — without ever having to resort to the hard sell.
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