Networking is an invaluable means of generating new business leads and keeping up to date with industry developments. Making the right contacts is crucial to developing your business. But what are your networking options?
With limited time and resources to spend on networking, it might be tempting to think you can do it all online these days. But meeting business contacts face-to-face at networking events, conferences and exhibitions is still important to build trust and develop leads.
"You can start business relationships online, but it's only when people read your body language, smile and shake hands that they really want to do business with you," says founder of marketing consultancy Kintish Limited, Will Kintish, a specialist in training people in off and online networking.
Start by finding out what kind of networking options are useful for your business sector. These can be off or online and don't have to be straightforward networking events.
"Too many people don't engage with other delegates at a conference, or spend all their time at an exhibition by their own stand," stresses Kintish. Any platform or event where business owners get together is a networking opportunity.
Check local business support organisations or chamber of commerce events calendar and ask friends, family and business partners for tips and ideas. If you are unsure how to network effectively, consider attending training workshops and events.
The key benefit of online networking is convenience: it can take place at any time and you do not need to travel. It also exposes you to a wider pool of potential contacts who you can pinpoint in a way that removes the chance that characterises many traditional networking events.
"By being active you can build your network quite quickly," explains Penny Power, founder of business networking site Sunzu (previously known as Ecademy). "Aim to make the most of every contact you get. Remember, if your contact can't help you directly, they might refer you on."
You should not neglect physical networking options, because they are a good way to build a lasting relationship. Networking online is a 'virtual handshake', not a replacement for face-to-face networking.
Things sometimes work much quicker if you meet someone, and it's easier to assess if you want to do business with each other. Before deciding which platform or events to target, you need to have a clear idea of what you want to get out of them.
"Think about your objective, budget and how much time you want to spend," advises Kintish. "For example, your objective might be to find new customers in your target market or suppliers in a particular industry."
"There are thousands of networking groups, it can be difficult to decide which the best ones are to spend your time on," Kintish points out.
Make the most of any slow periods, by building up your contact base. "If you don't have much work on, it could be beneficial to attend two or three networking events per week and find new clients," says Kintish.
"Always make time to go to occasional networking events, perhaps outside of your normal working hours," he concludes.