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 an important way 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 Will Kintish, founder of marketing consultancy Kintish Limited, a specialist in training people in off- and online networking.
Research suitable networking options
Start by finding out what kind of networking options are useful for your business sector. These can be off or online and don't just have to be 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 with local business support organisations or your chamber of commerce website for ideas for events that could be worth attending. If you are unsure how to network effectively, consider attending training workshops.
Online vs traditional networking options
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 compared to traditional networking events.
"By being active you can build your network quite quickly," says Penny Power, founder of business networking site SunZu. "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 real world networking events, 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 often work more quickly if you meet someone in person; not least because 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."
Make time to exploit networking options
"There are thousands of networking groups, it can be difficult to decide which are the best ones 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, even outside of your normal working hours," he concludes.