In these times of web 2.0 and online social networking, it’s all too easy to forget the value of meeting face-to-face.
Trade shows, conferences and seminars are all great networking opportunities — they can help you raise your profile, meet new customers, connect with suppliers and more.
Networking events are sometimes viewed as a bit of a skive, but as anyone who attends them knows, they can be hard work — and, used well, this time out of the office can be invaluable to your business.
Online tools have made face-to-face networking less stressful and more time efficient, and a little online research can bypass that awkward first stage of a meeting.
This research can include checking the website to see who’s exhibiting and taking time to read any pre-event emails and literature to devise a plan of attack.
You may have the chance to catch up with existing suppliers or meet new ones. Contacting them to arrange a time to talk can help you get the most out of your visit — alternatively, arrange a post-event follow-up if you need more time.
Try to find out who else will be attending the event. Perhaps there’s a prospect you’ve been trying to contact or an ex-colleague you’d like to share industry info with.
Here are a few ways you can find this information.
Though there’s no longer a dedicated application for events, there are still ways to spot who might be attending. Check status updates to see if anyone has mentioned the event. Update your own status and invite your connections to respond.
Many large events now have a dedicated LinkedIn group, where you can find people who share your interest. Identify group members who are existing connections, read the latest posts, start a discussion about meeting up (don’t make it too much of a sales pitch) or send individual messages to people.
Many event organisers use Eventbrite (embedded in their own website) as a registration tool and to take payment. You can also use it to search for events in your industry or those happening locally.
Look for a list of those who have registered, search for them on LinkedIn and make contact before the event.
As well as following event organisers on Twitter who may be tweeting in the run up to an event, many events have a hashtag you can follow to find out what exhibitors are up to and who else is planning to visit.
Again, this gives you the opportunity to check out profiles and connect before the event. Use the event hashtag to tweet that you’ll be attending, and ask if anyone wants to meet up. It’s that easy!
Use tools such as Foursquare or Facebook to check in to the event, so exhibitors and other delegates can find you. Tweet to say you’ve just enjoyed a particular presentation, or that you‘re about to take a coffee break and you’re looking forward to chatting to other delegates.
So, you did your preparation, made some valuable contacts and had a great time — remember to carry on networking and follow up everyone you met, as well as those you may have missed. Explore the event hashtag stream and check out the LinkedIn group. A quick “great to meet you/see you again” or “sorry I missed you” note will keep the door open for future conversation.
During a discussion with a group of networking contacts recently, I realised that we all knew at least one person who was ruining their chances of getting referrals just by trying to be seen as a “jack of all trades” while networking.
It is easy to become unnerved by the slowdown in business but staying true to your business and its core offering is crucial if you want to be seen as a credible supplier and stand a chance of being recommended by others. And networking is still one of the most effective ways to raise your profile and spread positive word of mouth about what you do.
Here are some of the most common ways in which you could be ruining your chances of getting valuable referrals when you are networking:
This will lead to no referrals because you are not specialising in one area, which will eventually lead to confusion in professional stance and ultimately it will ruin your credibility with others. After all, how can you expect to be seen as a market leader or credible expert when you are presenting yourself as a “jack of all trades”? The result is no credibility and no referrals.
I shouldn't have to mention this one, but sadly it happened to one of my contacts in a networking group. Then what happened? That's right, he told everybody! You should always present a professional image when you need people to talk about how good your products and services are. By slipping up, the result was an instant loss of future referrals.
I always remind people of the following statement: the people in a networking group are your route to market, not your target market. This means that until they are properly qualified they do not require the hard sell. If you do launch into sales pitches, you’ll soon find people avoiding you.
This has two effects on the person you are seeking help from. Firstly, the initial impact on the person that tried to help is "well I won't bother wasting my time like that again!" But it also might suggest you are engaging in a form of oneupmanship — you don’t need to ask for help and you are only going to ignore the advice given. This will also demonstrate that advice was not needed in the first place, but that you thought you knew better! This doesn’t create a great overall impression does it?
I'm not talking about the casual introduction — "oh, you should really talk to xyz, he might know people that need your help" — but proper referrals, a qualified introduction to someone that needs your help (and is willing to pay for it). Result? People get fed up with your taking attitude and don't bother with you.
Until people really understand what it is you do, how can you expect them to give you referrals? Let alone trust you enough to refer you to their biggest client, where their reputation and credibility is on the line? So make sure that you come across as the leading expert in your field — and add some confidence in there too!
It is often said that your personal value is not what you know, but who you know. This is powerful motivation for recent graduates to build their personal networks. Those of us of a certain age may have concluded that we already have enough friends and contacts; the challenge is making the best use of those that we already have.
The mathematics supports this argument. If you have been in business over twenty years, you probably have more than 150 close contacts, defined as people you like and respect and would recognise if you bumped into them out of their normal work context. If you add to this all the people in their close networks, this aggregates to potentially more than 20,000 agreeable and interesting people.
It is not a problem to identify other networking prospects; we all have a drawer full of business cards and often a large number of online connections. The dilemma is how to successfully leverage one's existing contacts without in the process appearing sleazy and manipulative.
The most important lesson to learn from the best connected individuals is that little of their networking activity is carried out with any specific business goal in mind. They concentrate their effort on people they most like and who seem to like them right back.
Even for the shyest individual, all that is required to leverage their network is to generate a list of people whose company they have enjoyed over the years and invite them to a private dinner. This would be apropos of nothing in particular other than the pleasure of good company and an opportunity for their friends to meet other interesting people.
The tools for engineering a mutually successful outcome of such events are well explained by one of Europe's leading business networking strategists, Andy Lopata. His site explains that connecting is not enough; it is important also to determine how well your contacts understand what you do and then how inspired they might be to provide a referral.
Lopata provides in-depth networking training and coaching and is always amazed to discover how few companies have an effective referral strategy. One investment bank merely had a system for asking for two referrals at the end of every meeting, regardless of whether they had actually built up any trust with the client.
Lopata explains that the chances of receiving a referral are greatly increased if they understand exactly what you do, has a high level of trust and fully understands exactly how you help people, and the problems you solve.
Everyone understands that we are all fundamentally in the business of generating profits for our companies and in the process earn a decent living, but your chances of receiving a referral are greatly increased if you are also perceived to have a wider purpose to your working life. This may not be as noble and altruistic as working for a social enterprise solving problems in the developing world, but you should at least demonstrate how you can make the process of business in general more fun and interesting by your own personal efforts.
Lopata recommends making a detailed assessment of your best contacts; the people they know, their willingness to refer you to them and how exactly you might inspire them to make that valued introduction, for free. While some people offer direct financial rewards for referrals, seasoned networkers mostly make introductions on the basis that everyone gains real benefits, including the prospect of referrals in return.
While high-level networking is primarily a face-to-face activity, Lopata agrees that online tools greatly accelerate the process. LinkedIn is probably the best tailored for this purpose; you can connect with people you know, like and trust and can also search specifically for long-lost colleagues from former companies whom you remember as being fun and interesting.
If you explain yourself and your purpose well, they should happily provide referrals to their best contacts, primarily on the basis that both of you would both enjoy meeting each other; any subsequent business would represent a bonus, rather than the prime objective.
Expert networkers like Lopata work on the basis that if you connect with your network on this mutually beneficial basis, the financial rewards will definitely flow. He explains that it is who knows you and what they say about you that determine the true value of your network. Successful networking should be genuinely selfless and altruistic, always giving referrals without remembering your simple favour, and receiving them without forgetting their kind gift.
Copyright ©Mike Southon 2012. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon is the co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur and a business speaker.
Networking events are useful for growing your business, so long as you do not just use them as an opportunity to sell too aggressively.
Effective networking is primarily about meeting new people and then deciding if they are worth contacting later. Some might be potential clients or suppliers; others merely people with whom you found some empathy and a common sense of purpose.
Networking events can be intimidating for even the most extrovert characters, but a simple way of introducing yourself into a group of strangers is via the simple request, "may I join you?".
You should first ask where a person is from and what business they are in. Next, you might try to elicit a customer story to add some colour to the conversation. From there, you should use your instincts as to whether the conversation is worth pursuing.
If you do sense that there is some common ground, you can ask them why they were at the event, hoping to uncover any potential sales needs that you might be able to address. To show that you have immediate value, you should respond with factual information such as a useful website, or even recommend someone from your own network who you feel might be useful to contact.
The key is to establish quickly that you are interesting, which in the early stages of a business relationship is a combination of practical information and a good personal network. If you are able to establish this successfully, then they should be happy to receive an e-mail to set up a meeting, which is when the sales process can be started in a structured way.
While attending networking events should always have an underlying sales purpose, the wider objective is about increasing your circle of contacts. The people you connect with successfully can then reciprocate with their own valuable information and interesting people.
Our lives are dominated by mobile phones and e-mails, impersonal tools that can often take the spirit out of an enterprise. Networking events are useful for reminding us that business should always contain some element of human contact.
Originally published in The Mail on Sunday. Copyright ©Mike Southon 2012. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon is the co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur and a business speaker.
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, forums, groups, communities… With so much going on in social media, how can you be sure you’re getting the best ROI for your time?
It’s easy to fall into the social media trap and open profiles and pages on every network going. After all, everyone’s doing it, right? But, as my mum used to say: if everyone jumped off a cliff, would you do it too? I didn’t think so…
The real value of social media marketing is in the doors it opens for interaction and engagement with your end user. It’s about creating the opportunities to have conversations with your customers so you can better understand them and they can let you know how they feel. It helps us as businesses to better tailor our services to the needs and motivations of our target audience.
One way to think of social media marketing is as a dinner party (stick with me on this one); treat your activities as you would a dinner party and you can’t go far wrong! Here’s how:
If you want to engage with your target audience, it’s important to understand who they are and what they are interested in — and what you want to achieve with them. This should be the basis of your dinner party plans and will guide the rest of your decisions.
There’s no point holding your party in London if everyone you want to invite lives in Scotland — in the same way, there’s no point trying to engage on Facebook if the majority of your audience is active on Twitter. Select your party location carefully.
You wouldn’t serve meat to a vegetarian (not if you want them to have a good time, anyway!). Do your research to understand what your audience likes and what will provide them benefit, then identify the products you have in your business that appeal to those needs and add value to the party guests.
You’re the host of your party so you need to make sure your guests are comfortable and having a good time. Guide the conversation but don’t talk at them – your party is about conversation and everyone should be able to get involved.
Be available to your audience beyond your social media interaction – ensure there are ways for people to get in touch and find out more via your website and consider email marketing campaigns.
So don’t just jump on the social media bandwagon because everyone else is — make sure you’re making the most of your time and your investment.
Laura Hampton is a copywriter and online marketer at Zabisco, a digital agency in Nottingham
Find out more in our dedicated section on social media and online networking.
Phone and email for new business generation are still at the heart of all new business marketing programmes when reaching out to an audience; however social media is playing a growing part in these strategies.
Here are a few suggestions showing how you can widen your reach to be noticed, to persuade your audience, engage them and stand out from the crowd.
Join discussion groups — those your key targets are part of and active in. Get involved and offer your expertise, help solve their problems.
Follow key targets, including a sample of their targets, to get a feel for trends, issues, challenges and popular topics being discussed.
Independent expert status will deliver a deeper level of trust. Get involved with forums that will be most valuable to you and share relevant content across these platforms.
Have a close look at media in your sector, the angle taken, your targets’ positioning and the audience they are reaching out to.
Attend all key industry events and engage with your target audience. What are your targets showcasing, how strong and professional is their positioning, collateral, understanding of their audience?
You’re an expert. Share your knowledge and industry opinions.
Attend carefully chosen conferences and seminars, consider speaking at them, particularly those that are the benchmark for your specialism.
Your website needs to be interactive to allow your audience to connect with you. Make it easy for them to reach you through an online blog where they can post comments or find you through other social media platforms and connect with you there.