Chances are you’ve attended a conference or other event with the express purpose of “networking.” The activity is a staple in the business development toolbox. It’s also an expensive activity—mostly spent on third-party events—in both time and direct costs. So, is it worth it? It depends.
First, the word itself has been so overused that it may have lost its meaning to us. When was the last time you stopped and asked yourself, “Why go to this event?” Second, for many of us, networking is an unpleasant and, poorly planned, endeavor. Lastly, we do not give equal time and care to the three stages of networking. We particularly drop the ball in what I call the “before and after of networking.”
But here’s good news: networking doesn’t need to be so stressful and it can be rewarding. It depends on you.
The Pre-Work: Ask Yourself the Right Questions
- Is this the right opportunity? My advice is to attend events where you can establish new relationships. Yes, it’s important to maintain existing relationships but if that’s your primary reason for attending an event, don’t. Events should not be where you try to get face-to-face time with clients. Better to schedule time to visit your clients’ offices or organize a dinner or seminar where you invite clients to learn new things and connect with one another.
- Who do I want to meet? As you evaluate an event take a look at who are the speakers. Also take a look at the sponsors of the event. Lastly, you may want to call the event organizers and find out which companies have sent attendees to past events. The goal is to identify specific individuals that you want to meet.
- What can I offer that would interest this person? When thinking about approaching someone at an event, don’t think about what you need or what you want to ask for, focus on what you can offer. How can I help this person? This will require you to do some research and to think about how you can approach them in a compelling and thoughtful way. You can introduce yourself before the event via email or social media (LinkedIn or Twitter).
The Event: Be Someone You Want to Meet
- Be friendly and gracious. The other attendees are probably nervous, too. Eye contact and a smile is a most welcomed kindness. Not everyone will be as gracious but it’s worth the risk when you realize most people will be.
- Ask open-ended questions. Instead of practicing your elevator speech on someone new, ask the person some open-ended questions about them. If it’s someone you’ve contacted or googled during the pre-work, make the questions about what you’ve learned about them.
- Be open to serendipity. You have identified people you specifically want to meet. But you also want to be open to others. Sit or stand next to someone you don’t know. Say hello and ask, “What brings you to this conference?” or “What speakers have you enjoyed so far?” Also, many of the multi-day events have apps that have information on the speakers and the attendees. Check it out.
- Move the relationship forward. If you want to move the relationship forward there are many ways to take the lead. For example, “I’ll send you a link to the article on [fill in the blank]” or “I’ll send you some recommendations on [fill in the blank].”
The Post-Work: Continue to Move the Relationship Forward
- Organize yourself. Schedule time to take your event notes and transfer them into action items. The action items need to include staying in touch. Send them the article your promised or a notice of an event that might interest them. Call them. Offer to develop a seminar gratis for his or her company. Ask them to co-write an article.
- Follow-up the old-fashioned way. A handwritten note is so rare. How special would you feel if you received one from someone you met at an event? If you don’t have stationery order some.
- Follow-up the new way. Connect with the people you’ve met on a periodic basis on LinkedIn or Twitter. Make sure you “follow” those who use these channels to communicate.
- Moving the relationship forward. If you want to continue to move the relationship forward take the lead. When you meet someone at an event think of it as the first touchpoint. It’s rare when that touchpoint alone will turn into a relationship.
On a Personal Note
There are many ways for us to enjoy and benefit from networking. But it takes work and discipline. The three stages are equally important and missing one is like a three-legged stool with two legs.
I’ll also leave you with one personal note. I think of networking as connecting with people. I know it’s about business, but it’s the people I focus on.