Every day, like many of you (or hopefully most of you) I network—from the comfort of my home or my office. I spend a good part of my day participating in social media, posting on Facebook, LinkedIn and mostly Twitter. One of my business partners also posts our content on other social media platforms.
Networking online has served me well. I’ve met lots of interesting entrepreneurs, cemented existing relationships, marketed my work and even found a few clients. But a recent trip to Delhi, India for a conference for women entrepreneurs, DWEN (Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network) sponsored by Dell reminded me that, though it might sound quaint, there’s still a lot to be said about-and gained from- face-to-face networking.
Are you one of those people who think networking is a waste of time? It’s not. Essentially, all else being equal, people do business with people they know, like and trust. Networking enables you to meet people you otherwise would not come in contact with, and establish a foundation for a lasting relationship.
To be clear, I am not suggesting you give up your social networking efforts. But, similar to incorporating social media into your overall marketing plan, you’ll be better off if you have just one cohesive networking strategy.
If just thinking about walking into a room full of strangers makes you break out in a cold sweat, here are some tips to make networking easier, more effective and maybe even fun.
Establish goals. Like any business effort, you need to set measurable goals so you can determine the best networking strategy for you. Do you want to make X number of new contacts per month? Do you want to obtain X number of qualified leads? Do you want to find a new supplier or vendor for a particular item? Having goals is also key to determining how you'll assess the success of your networking efforts.
Create a strategy. Now that you know what kind of people you want to meet, figure out what organizations and events they are likely to attend. Are there key industry trade groups whose conferences you should be attending? Would you benefit from local groups such as your Chamber of Commerce? How about niche groups such as networking organizations for women or minority entrepreneurs? There are also groups organized around specific topics, such as sales lead generating groups or finding financing.
Make the time. Figure out how much time you need to devote to networking to achieve your goals, and how much time you can realistically spend. Depending on your goals, you may want to focus on one organization or spread your efforts among several groups. Whatever you do, don't take a scattershot approach. Give each group at least two or three tries before you decide how valuable it is.
Do your homework. When you attend networking events, be prepared with plenty of business cards and your best elevator pitch, a brief one- or two-sentence description of your business that clearly conveys what you do and is intriguing enough that people want to know more. Bring pens for jotting notes on the back of business cards.
Mingle. Of course it’s easier to attend an event with a friend or colleague, but if you do, make sure you split up. Spending all your time with people you already know defeats the purpose of networking. Networking is kind of like cold calling: The more you do it, the less scary it becomes. If you’re nervous about being rejected, try finding other newcomers; they'll be eternally grateful.
Be a good listener. Listening is the secret to making sales, and it's also the secret to successful networking. When you meet someone new, ask questions and really listen to the answers. When you listen carefully, two things happen. First, you'll spot needs that your business can fill. Second, you'll gain a reputation as a great conversationalist, which will make more people want to approach you.
Be a leader. If you decide to join an organization, don't just sit there. Join a committee or take a leadership role. By doing so, you'll learn more, meet more people, and make yourself memorable.
Follow up. You can go to 20 networking events a month, but if you don't follow up on the contacts you make, it's all for nothing. Within 48 hours after each event, follow up on your new contacts in some way, even if it's just a quick e-mail saying how nice it was to meet them. Take action on what you talked about at the event—if you discussed meeting for lunch, follow up with a specific invitation; if you suggested talking by phone, set a time for the call. Acting within 48 hours helps cement you in the other person's mind and starts building the relationship.
Integrate online and offline. Incorporate your real-world networking contacts into your social networking efforts. When you meet someone at an event, follow up with an invitation to connect on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter. Similarly, meeting up with your online contacts offline can be a great way to take those relationships to the next level. Try organizing a meetup of one of your most useful online networking groups.
Be persistent. The key to successful networking is persistence. It's kind of like that principle of compound interest that our math teachers explained to us all when we were kids. As you get to know more people and maintain and grow those relationships, your circle expands exponentially. As you do business with your new contacts, your business will grow exponentially, too.
This was my second trip to the DWEN conference. At last year’s event in Brazil, I met many new people, and reestablished some important relationships. I even forged a business partnership. This year the conference proved even more fruitful.