Just the thought of it makes you cringe. But you know it’s a necessary part of business, so you drag yourself to events, zealously hand out business cards and make awkward small talk for as long as you can bear it.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Networking doesn’t have to be a chore. Believe it or not, it can actually be fun. Follow these tips the next time you go to a networking event, and you may find yourself having a good time while you forge important professional connections.
Have An Objective
Before you go to a networking event, ask yourself, "Why am I going?" And no, "Because I probably should" isn’t a good enough answer. If you don't have a compelling reason to attend, don’t waste your time. With that said, there are multiple reasons why attending an event can be valuable. Some sample objectives:
- To show support for the organizer of the event.
- To meet potential clients.
- To recruit potential candidates to work at your company.
- To find job opportunities.
- To meet potential investors.
- To recruit beta testers for a new product.
- To grow your blog readership or Twitter following.
- To meet peers you can learn from.
Once you identify an objective, focus on achieving that while you’re there. If you’ve accomplished your goal by the end of the event, congrats! You networked successfully. Of course, things don’t always go as planned. You might walk into an event expecting it to be full of potential investors, only to find it’s full of grad students looking for work. At that point, reevaluate your objective and make the most of it — or leave.
How do you gracefully enter or exit a conversation? How do you remember someone’s name? How do you make a good impression? The answer: Make introductions.
If you chat with someone who’s looking for an internship, and 10 minutes later you meet someone who’s hiring interns, go ahead and play matchmaker. Both parties will appreciate it because you’ve A) shown you were listening, B) put their needs ahead of your own and C) helped them out without asking for something in return. That’s how you start building great social capital in your network.
Introducing people you just met is a great way to confirm you got their name right and correctly understood what they do and what they’re looking for. It makes a great impression on everyone involved. The person getting introduced feels flattered, the person receiving the intro feels like he or she is meeting someone important and you come across as gracious and connected. Win, win, win!
Finally, when it’s time to transition out of a chat, you can introduce them to someone else who’s joined your circle. You break the ice for them and free yourself up to meet other people.
Follow Up Within 24 Hours
You came home from an event with a pocket full of business cards? Great! But those cards are worthless unless you do something with them — and soon.
Following up after a networking event is a bit like touching base after a first date: no contact after 48 hours sends the wrong message. Should you follow up the same day as the event? Sure. Unless you had too many beers at the mixer — then wait until the morning.
If you’re old-fashioned, you might hold onto your business cards in a binder or rolodex. I prefer to enter contact info into my Google Address Book and then recycle the cards. In addition to their full name, company, position, and contact info, I’ll add notes about how, when and where we met, what we talked about and why they might be good to get in touch with again.
Next, I add them to my Professional Contacts circle on Google+, send them a LinkedIn request with a customized note and follow them on Twitter. If I found their company interesting, that will reflect on my social networks, too.
(Note: One thing you should not do is subscribe them to your newsletter just because you have their business card. That is seriously gauche and outright spammy. It’s fine to invite them to opt-in to your newsletter as part of your follow-up, if it’s of interest.)
Sometimes that’s all you need to do. If you had a really great interaction with someone, however, keep the conversation going. LinkedIn or email correspondence is a great way to deepen a new connection; an in-person coffee meeting is even better. Remember, though: Time is precious. You don’t need to arrange a coffee meeting with everyone you meet at every networking event. Save those for people to whom you can deliver real, immediate value.
Keep In Touch
Once you’ve got someone in your network, keep them there. There are all sorts of ways to keep in touch, just to show you haven’t forgotten about someone and you still care about what they’re doing. For example:
- Retweet their tweets.
- Congratulate them on a new promotion on LinkedIn.
- Read and comment on their blog.
- Share exciting press about their projects.
- Contribute to their crowdfunding campaign.
- Buy their product and review it online.
- Send them an email asking what’s new.
Every gesture counts. Just a few touches here and there go a long way.
The most important thing you can do to keep in touch is to repeat one of the earlier steps: Make introductions. Introduce your connections to one another. Match job candidates with hiring managers, angels with entrepreneurs, teachers with students, clients with vendors and so on. Use your network to make itself stronger, and you’ll all be better off.