August 9, 2016
Networking – it’s been around as long as there have been merchants with something to sell. It’s certainly possible to imagine two tradesmen at a market in ancient Babylonia – one selling meat and one selling produce – getting together and planning how they could recommend one another to customers, or giving price breaks if customers bought items from both of their stands.
We’ve come a long way since, but the concept of networking remains an important one, as businesses seek to spread their brands and increase their customer bases. And networking itself has transformed. It occurs through physical face-to-face moments and discussion, and online, through participation in social media groups, forums, and niche-specific outreach. Whether you network on or offline or both, there are still some basic tips for establishing relationships that will be mutually beneficial. It takes some work, a bit of research, and, most important, superior communication skills.
Begin by Identifying Communities
If you are a small business owner with a local target market, then you obviously stay local, perhaps regional. In addition to a local Chamber of Commerce, what other groups are there? If there aren’t any, start one. Reach out to all other small businesses in your area and invite them to an organizational meeting, or host an event to “break the ice.”
If your presence is primarily online and your target market is national, then you have deeper and more expensive activity to pursue. It’s not enough to join some LinkedIn groups of related businesses. You need to find associations and organizations that hold regional and national conferences and other events, and you must attend. But be selective. It’s a waste of time to go to a personal care networking event if you sell auto parts!
Be Prepared with Your 30-Second Elevator Pitch
Can you creatively and succinctly describe what value you bring to your customers through your product or service? This is often called an “elevator pitch,” and it takes a bit of creativity and practice to develop yours. Go online and research some examples of great pitches and try to fashion one that pops. The best ones usually start with a bit of humor or a story, not the company name, your position, or your business. Write out your pitch and memorize it. Keep repeating it until it is second-nature and sounds spontaneous. Here’s an example for a web designer:
“I make the Internet more beautiful. My job is to take client’s products and services and showcase them with the most unique website designs out there. Most of the time, it doesn’t really ‘feel’ like a job because I love turning boring into exciting. Recently, I completed design remodels for _________________ and ________________. And, oh, I nearly forgot! Here’s my business card – my site has some of my most recent designs. Give me a call if you want to explore how a re-model might work for you.”
Shut Up and Listen
We all love to talk about our businesses – it is what we live, eat, and breathe every day. But a critical piece of networking is not talking, but listening. When you ask others about their businesses and listen carefully, you not only learn, but you also pick up ideas on how you can be of help to them and they to you. You will then have reasons for follow-up contact. And this makes you memorable, whether that conversation occurs in person or online.
Follow Through Right Away
Let’s suppose you are in the tech industry. You have isolated 3-4 tech conference events you will attend, and they are relatively close together. You cannot wait until you are through with your round of events before you sit back and decide to conduct some follow-up. After each event, make your list of contacts, the company they represent, something memorable about them, and any conversation you had about meeting up again, either off or online. Maybe you discussed getting together for lunch; perhaps you were going to email some information that would be beneficial. Do it now. And keep a record of all contact you have made. If you need some tools for note-taking, consider Papyrus, Evernote or OneNote. If you need to remind yourself about the specific follow-throughs, look at Trello, Things, or Todoist. These tools can keep you on track.
Get Over the “Shy”
Networking is not for the “faint of heart.” You may be shy in the beginning, but with a practiced and smooth elevator pitch and a memorized list of questions to ask those you meet, it will get easier with time.
And, finally, don’t give up. While the venues and the platforms may be new, the concept is as old as those ancient marketplaces. Networking is not a science, it is an art. You have to practice this art just as a piano player must regularly do. You will get better and smoother with each “performance.”
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