I’m always suspect of events that promote “networking” as a highlight of the event. Don’t get me wrong – I love meeting new people and starting relationships through networking, and I’m far from an introvert. In fact, building my list of contacts through networking is probably the most valuable source of new business opportunities (not to mention a lot of fun, and often very enlightening). The thing is that the best networking opportunities can happen anywhere – and they’re rarely at a generic networking mixer. From going to so many events, both lackluster and amazingly valuable, I’ve developed a filter for avoiding engagements that waste time, as well as a set of methods for making the most of really great events.
Red Flags to Avoid:
- If it’s marketed as a “Networking Event,” don’t waste your time. Of course you’re going to network at the event, that’s the whole point – this is usually a sign that the event’s actual content/programming is lacking.
- Similarly, I avoid general “mixers,” unless it’s hosted by a company or individual who you know to be reputable. Knowing who’s behind the event is key – that will tell you a lot about what to expect, so do some research on the producer before deciding to go.
- Watch out for free events. You can find out about some awesome events that happen to be free, but generally I’ve found that free events are usually free for a reason – and paying for good quality events, with great speakers, presentations, attendees, and which are held at a nice venue, are usually well worth the nominal entry fee.
- If promotional materials for the event try too hard to convince you of its merit using superfluous claims (i.e. “the top global marketing gurus will be there, you can’t miss this event!!!”), it’s probably safe to say it’s not worth it.
- Location is another thing to be wary of. Good events should be close and accessible to the closest metropolitan area. For example, if there’s an entrepreneurship/startup event held somewhere in the Bay Area more than an 45-60 from San Francisco, Berkeley, or Palo Alto, something is probably amiss.
Before The Event:
- Check out the website for the event, and see if there’s an attendee list. If so, find the people you want to meet and do a quick Google/LinkedIn search on them so you know the names, faces, and a little background info. This can save you time at events so you’re not starting from scratch with every person you meet, and you can make sure you talk to the right people.
- Also do some research on the speakers and sponsors – this will help you have more knowledgeable conversations about the content of the event, and enable you to have something immediately relevant to talk about with these folks when you meet them.
- Try to contact the event organizer – request an attendee list or at least find out what kind of people will be there, clarify any other questions you might have, and if the event is promising ask if they need any help (offer relevant services that you/your company can possibly provide pro-bono). If you form a rapport with the organizer before the event, she/he will likely introduce you to other key attendees, presenters, and sponsors.
- Make sure your business cards are up to date and that you have enough to hand out.
- Know what you’re looking to accomplish, know what you’re going to say, and dress appropriately.
At The Event:
- Abandon the idea that handing out as many business cards as possible is the main goal. Giving your contact info. out is key, of course, but people’s eyes glaze over if you go from person to person giving a thirty-second elevator pitch, jamming your business card in their face, and moving to the next warm body – don’t be that guy/gal. Ask what their business is about, find out what they’re looking for, and offer a connection. You should be focusing on how you can help people, because they will probably help you back and this makes networking a much less intimidating and sterile endeavor.
- Hang out near the bar – this is the place that gets the most foot traffic, and it’s usually an ideal location for mingling without having to awkwardly pace around.
- Know when to politely close a conversation if there’s obviously not much you and the other person have to discuss, and move on – at larger events, you really have to make the most of your time there, and you’ll never connect with the right people if you kill 15 minutes talking to every person you meet.
- If there’s an audience Q & A, come up with some cogent questions and points to raise for the presenters (ideally which are relevant to your business) – this will put the spotlight on you, give you the opportunity to introduce yourself to everyone, and position you as an intelligent person others will want to meet.
- When you meet really important contacts, after your conversation either jot down some notes on what you discussed (on the back of their card if possible) or do a quick audio memo on your phone – very important when you meet a ton of people, because it’s easy to forget what was discussed.
After The Event:
- Make sure you follow up with everyone you met at the event within a week (the sooner the better). For people I’ve met who I don’t see immediate opportunities to work together with on some level, I just send a brief “Nice to meet you” message as a LinkedIn invite, and offer any help I may be able to provide. You never know when that person or someone in their network will become an important contact for you.
- For contacts who you see a direct opportunity with (and the opportunity is mutual), take the time to do a bit more research on them, their company, and whatever project they’re working on. Follow up with an email or call, and ask for a meeting to discuss in more detail x, y, and z that you chatted about at the event.
- If the event was really good, write a blog post about it, and try to tie in the relevance it had for your business, products, or services. Update your LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter networks notifying them of the post, as well as the event organizer and attendees. A well written post will often get re-tweeted by attendees, and/or placed in the “Press” section of the event website.
Main post image credit: Kate Libby via Flickr.com