In recent years, online platforms such as LinkedIn and other social media channels have rapidly established themselves as essential networking tools for small business owners.
However, good old-fashioned in-person networking still has a crucial part to play in the success of any small business, and a successful marketing strategy will combine both digital and in-person networking.
As well as affording opportunities to learn more about your industry, business events such as conferences, conventions, trade shows, seminars and workshops can offer excellent networking opportunities for business owners.
Try putting these tips into practice when attending your next in-person networking event.
Before the event
Review the profiles of people on the guest list, carry out a little research, and connect with those you feel it may be beneficial to have a conversation with. Suggest that you meet in-person at the event. This way, you will have broken the ice beforehand and it will make following up after the event that much easier.
Attend events with a plan
Specify a particular goal for each event – for example, to schedule three follow-up meetings. At the end of each year, assess how far your business has met its networking goals, and evaluate how relationships with people in your network have helped your business.
Pay attention to your appearance
Whether we like it or not, first impressions count for a lot. The impression a new contact forms of you in the first few seconds can influence whether you win or lose their approval, their trust, and ultimately a contract. Be sure to dress smartly and appropriately, take care of personal grooming, keep any make-up natural, and choose accessories with care.
Prepare a brief elevator pitch, introducing yourself and your business
This can be particularly helpful if you’re nervous about meeting new people, as it can open the door to a deeper conversation. However, you should always avoid hard selling and remember to focus on building genuine relationships first and foremost; it isn’t simply about exchanging business cards.
Avoid spending too much time with people you know
Make a concerted effort to speak to people you have never met before, but take care not to monopolise anybody’s time.
Focus on quality over quantity
It is more valuable to build connections with five quality people than 30 “contacts” you won’t remember afterwards.
Connect with influencers
Put time and effort into building relationships of trust with influencers and “movers and shakers” within your industry. Focus on what you can do for them, rather than what they can do for you. Nourish these connections and never take them for granted.
Make the conversation about the person you are speaking with. It doesn’t have to be strictly business talk. Identify common ground, keep communications light and natural, maintain eye contact, listen attentively, and respond with relevant, insightful questions.
Develop open-ended questions
You can use these to ignite a conversation. Be curious about others and try to ask interesting and different questions. Don’t ask the same old, “so what do you do?” question if you can help it.
Step out of your comfort zone
Connecting with peers in your own industry is the first step in a networking strategy, but it shouldn’t stop there. Meeting people from outside your industry can bring a fresh perspective to your business. If you’re not a natural conversationalist, arrive prepared with a few conversation starters up your sleeve to break the ice.
Ask permission to contact people
When you finish a conversation, ask if it would be OK to follow up or meet with them after the event, and try to suggest a concrete goal for any subsequent meeting.
Categorise your new contacts
When you arrive back at the office with a stack of business cards, it is a good idea to categorise your new contacts so that you can prioritise your follow up communications accordingly.
Follow up in a unique and different way. For example, send a handwritten note and reference something you actually talked about at the event. Reach out on social media or LinkedIn. Like, comment and share their content. Personalise your communications and don’t send out generic, standardised messages.
Finally, offering to interview some of your most influential new contacts could help to further grow your network, especially if you take a strategic approach. This could be done in the context of a podcast or webinar.
Business networking events provide the perfect environment to learn directly from other small business owners, and to impress potential new clients and suppliers. Indeed, smart networking can be an excellent way to boost your reputation and build authority in your niche.
Follow our tips above and you will be well on your way to forging valuable new connections for your business.