Business is all about getting to know other people. Whether it’s meeting clients, finding a business partner or making connections in your own field, sooner of later you’re going to need to do some networking. But if you’ve ever been to a networking event, you know that not everyone who shows up is really prepared for action.
Here is a quick ABC primer on the basics of effective business networking to keep your networking strategy ready for action at any time:
A is for Act, as in Getting It Together. The very first step in business networking is to know what you want to achieve, why and how. Are you looking for clients, trying to expand your market, hoping to find a business partner or scouting for venture capital to launch your next great product? You can waste a lot of time and energy networking without a purpose. On the other hand, once you know the answers to these questions, you can tailor your activities to tightly target your needs and maximize results.
B is for Business Card. Your card is your portable business face; make sure it’s up to snuff. At the very least, it needs to have all of your pertinent contact information up-to-date and accurate. But in most cases it pays to go the extra step. Your card has two sides – why not use them? The back of your card is a great place to include samples, portfolio shots, charts, discount codes, service plan comparisons, etc. The key is stickiness – the longer your contact keeps your card, the better your chance of getting the call. If your card provides value beyond just acting as a carrier wave for contact info, they’ll hold onto it much longer.
[If you want to get really creative, one cool option is Moo Cards (www.moo.com). Moo cards are printed on very heavy art card stock and cut into a non-standard size, featuring graphic images on one side and text on the other. Their unusual shape, size and feel attract and hold attention. They’re perfect for artists, photographers, architects, models – anyone, really, who can benefit from something a bit hipper and more visually interesting.]
C is for Cyberspace, as in Online Networking. Should your networking profile be up online? If so, where? While there are no universally right answers to those questions, there are a few things you can ask yourself to help clarify the issue. Are your clients likely to go online to research you and your company? Are prospective clients likely to be hanging out at online networking sites, or looking for you there? Is your field heavily represented in online networking sites? If so, then online networking is probably a good idea, because people will expect to find you there and may wonder why if they don’t find you. On the other hand, if you’re part of a conservative industry (banking or law, for example), online profiles might seem unprofessional at any but the most rigorously businesslike sites.
As for which site to set up shop on, the best option is to browse a few and get a feel for the population. MySpace is great for musicians and artists, while Facebook tends to attract the college-grad set. LinkedIn leans toward the white collar and corporate, while Ryze caters heavily to the self-employed. It’s all a matter of what you do and who your customers are. About.com has a whole page of articles on Online Networking (http://entrepreneurs.about.com/od/onlinenetworking/Online_Business_Networking.htm). Check it out for more ideas and answers.
D is for Dating (In a Strictly Professional Sense, Of Course). Now that you’ve got your act together, you cards are ready to go and your online profile is up and running, it’s time to actually start meeting some people. The obvious choice is to attend a networking or other professional event such as a conference or workshop. But before you go, step back for a moment and remember what we said at the beginning of the article. If you’re trying to meet prospective customers, then you’ll want to be with a completely different group than if you’re looking for venture capital or trying to track down collaborative business partners. Being picky about where you network will save you a ton or time and effort. Oh, and one more thing – before you go, contact the host or hostess and ask them for a list of attendees. That way you can learn ahead of time who’s going to be there, and who you’re most interested in meeting.
E and F are for Effective Follow Up. There are actually 3 F’s in business networking. Follow up, Follow through and moving the relationship Forward. Without these actions, you’re just socializing. Follow up is the first step – at the earliest opportunity, you should follow up with everyone you exchanged cards or otherwise connected with. When doing so, don’t get carried away – be brief, on point and professional. Step two is to follow through – if you made a promise to send along an article or make an introduction, do it now (before you forget). Finally, move the relationship forward. Never leave one connection (email, lunch date, phone call, etc) without making plans for the next one (follow-up letter, another lunch, a phone call, etc.). Your goal is to become part of your connection’s schedule, not something extra to remember in addition to all the other stuff in their life.