We know deep down we need to do it, even though it can make our stomach turn just thinking about it. Sometimes we get the impression of the plaid coat used car salesman fast talker running around with a megaphone, shouting about themselves to everyone they see.
Even in this digital-Meetup-Twitter-Facebook saturated world, in-person networking can be some of the most productive that you can do. I’ve been to a thousand of these events for various positions that I’ve held, and I’m here to tell you that, done correctly, it’s not a waste of time. In this article, I’m going to give you some tips to make your time at these events productive and maybe, just maybe even enjoyable.
If you’re nervous in new settings and meeting new people, you are not alone. In fact I’d bet 85% of the other people at the event feel the same way you do. Secondly, remember that they are people living in the same environment that you live in. They have the same struggles, the same fears, and the same hopes you do. And most importantly, they’re there to do the same thing that you’re there to do.
BEFORE YOU START NETWORKING
Think carefully about your goals for networking. Are you looking to connect straight to new clients, or are you looking to gain referrals from other businesses? A mixture of both perhaps? Whichever way you’re looking to go, you’ll need to take a long-range view here. Successful networking is about consistency; it’s not just a one-shot deal. Wherever you decide to land, the more involved you are and the more you are seen the more successful you’ll be.
If you’re looking to meet new clients, find out where they hang out. For example, if your clients consist of small business owners who need help with product images, find out what groups they belong to. Small business owners know and associate with other small business owners. Or maybe you shoot weddings, and are interested in meeting businesses you can share referrals with – invitation designers, florists, wedding cake providers, etc. What groups do they belong to? Personally, I like LinkedIn for this. Many times you can find these individuals and see what local groups they belong to. Those will be listed in their profile.
Another way is to just ask those in your own circle. Narrow down the list of groups to two or three to check out initially.
BEFORE THE EVENT
If you want to make the most of the event, you’ll need to do some prep beforehand. Just showing up with the intention of handing your business card to anyone who breathes is a recipe for frustration for you and everyone else who has the misfortune of crossing your path. If the event is listed on Meetup, LinkedIn, or Facebook, oftentimes you can see who has RSVP’d. Comb this list and see if there is anyone in particular that you’d like to meet or introduce yourself to. Narrow down the list to a few key targets. While you may not get to all of them at first, not everyone who says they’re going to show up actually will.
Once you figure that out, do some background research on them and their company. Google and social media are your friends here. Have they received any recognition recently? Has their business been awarded or recognized in the media? Do they have any significant milestones listed in their profiles? Does one of their projects in particular catch your attention? Any of this information makes for great talking points for when you meet them.
If you’re really fortunate, you’ll come across a name that you already recognize from your circle and they can facilitate a warm introduction. If that’s the case, then your battle is half won.
AT THE EVENT
First of all, just be yourself. Relax. No one here is interested in making your life hard or giving you a problem. Remember, everyone there has the same goals that you do.
Scan the room for the people that you targeted in your research. When you approach them, smile, offer a polite handshake and introduce yourself, and say something like “Aren’t you so-and-so from x company?” They’ll acknowledge that they are, and follow up with something you uncovered in your research. “I saw that you just completed that project. That must’ve been really interesting to work on.” At that point your only job is to listen attentively. People love to talk about themselves, or their company, or their accomplishments. The fact that you’ve done some research will impress them and they’ll be more open to chatting. As you’re listening you’ll start to get a good idea if further discussions would be beneficial. If it makes sense, exchange business cards, and let them know you enjoyed meeting them. Don’t monopolize all of their time. Remember, they’re there to do the same thing you’re doing.
Astute readers might have noticed something missing from the above conversation – all the talk about you, your business, or your services. We’ll get to that in a second. Keep in mind the goal for the first meeting is to get to know them and decide if they might be a good fit for either your services or to potentially partner up with.
AFTER THE EVENT
Ok, so, if you’ve done this right you’ve collected a few business cards and had some quality conversations with people. Another important point to remember (and that is too often forgotten) is that networking continues outside of those events. If you get a good vibe from one of those contacts, invite them out to lunch or coffee to talk further. “Hey I really enjoyed our chat and was hoping I could learn more about your company/achievement/project etc”. When you get another chance to talk to them, then you can start talking more gradually about yourself and your services. It can be as simple as “Would you mind if I show you some of the things I’m working on?” Given the interest that you’ve shown in them, they’re happy to reciprocate. Build from there.
FOR THE NEXT EVENT
Remember, you should have a long-term view of this. If you enjoyed your experience at that group, make plans to attend their events consistently. The more you’re seen, the more people will begin to trust you and connect with you. And if you really want to make an impression, offer to help the group leader with prep for an event. Maybe you can help with bringing treats or drinks, or have access to a space that could host an event. Usually your reward for that is public recognition, and it shows you take this seriously. Don’t forget to nurture the relationships that you build from there too. That’s the real key to finding success in this arena.
One caution though – don’t spread yourself too thin among too many groups. It will take some initial experimentation to discover which ones yield the most fruit (80/20 principle in action) and once you figure that out, continue focusing on those few. Also understand that over time, the group dynamic may change and it may not be as productive or begins to target a crowd not as suited to your purposes. That’s ok. Just begin at step 1 with a different group.
See, it can be done without feeling like you need to shower off when you’re done. Take it as seriously as a client meeting. Do some preliminary detective work, show a genuine interest in others, actively listen, and talk about yourself last. You just might start looking forward to networking.
Chris Horner helps business owners enhance their social media presence, and can help with sales forecasting and strategy. He also enjoys great conversations about cars.