Effectively finding networking leads isn’t just swapping business cards and calling it a day. It’s about making the right connections at the right time—and using those connections to move your business forward.
When it comes to adding value to your business, not all leads are created equal. While all leads are valuable, some leads are more likely to transition from “lead” to something else (like “customer” or “professional collaborator”) than others.
And arguably one of the most valuable leads you can drive for your business? A networking lead.
When you make a personal connection (whether that’s face-to-face or online) with a business contact, you open the door to building a more meaningful business relationship—and those relationships play a huge role in helping you expand your business and take things to the next level.
But what are the ins and outs of effective networking? How can you leverage your efforts to drive qualified leads for your business? And, most importantly, how can you build relationships and transform those leads into more opportunities, customers, and revenue for your organization?
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The Business Case for Networking
Before you jump into networking, it’s important to have a strategy—and to ensure that strategy is aligned with your ultimate business goals.
For example, if your ultimate goal is to establish yourself as a thought leader in your industry, you would need a different strategy than if you were trying to increase your customer base or build a team to support your new product launch.
There are a few different networking strategies you can use to achieve your business goals, including:
- Visibility-driven: Visibility-driven networking is all about getting your name—and your business—out there and in front of the right people to increase visibility and establish yourself as a leader in your industry. This strategy may include things like speaking at industry events or creating content for well-known outlets in your industry.
- Lead generation: If your main business goal is customer acquisition and lead generation, you’re going to want to build your networking strategy around connecting with as many new customers as possible. This could mean things like setting up a booth at an event that’s likely to draw customers (e.g., if you’re a healthy beverage company, you might set up a booth at a fitness expo) or hosting a live stream with your social media followers to connect in real-time, forge a personal connection, and answer any questions they have about your products or services.
- Team building: If new employees are what you’re after, you’re going to want to network in a way that helps you connect with top talent in your industry (e.g., if you’re looking to hire software engineers to build a new product, you might consider attending a local hackathon or engineering meetup).
- Business insights: As a successful business owner, one of the most valuable connections you can make through networking is connecting with other successful business owners. Professional development groups can be a great way to network with other entrepreneurs—and build relationships that can ultimately help you gain insights into the business world, and grow as a business owner.
How to Identify Business Networking Opportunities
Now that you know the different ways you can network to meet your business goals, let’s jump into how to find networking opportunities for your business.
When it comes to networking opportunities, you can connect in person, online, or a combination of the two. Here are some great places to look to find a variety of networking opportunities—both online and offline.
Online Networking Opportunities
- Meetup.com: There are events (known as meetups) for just about every topic under the sun—and as a business owner, you can leverage the Meetup.com platform to find opportunities (both online and off) that connect you with any type of group you’re looking for (whether that’s potential customers, like-minded business owners, or top talent in your industry).
- LinkedIn: LinkedIn has a huge variety of private groups that cater to a variety of industries, holders of professional designations (i.e., CPAs or JDs), and types of business leaders. It’s also the world’s biggest network of professionals—so if you’re looking to network with potential talent for your team, consider LinkedIn your go-to resource.
- Facebook Groups: Unlike LinkedIn, Facebook isn’t a professional website—but there are tons of professional connection opportunities through Facebook Groups. A quick search can help you find a variety of industry-specific groups or groups around more general business topics (like entrepreneurship or remote work) that can be great places to connect with other professionals and start building business relationships.
- Quora: If visibility-driven networking is part of your strategy, Quora can be a great way to get your name out there and establish yourself as a subject-matter expert. This question-and-answer site has questions on virtually every topic. And by finding the questions you (and your business) are qualified to answer, you can increase your visibility with the people who are asking and interested in those questions—people who would likely make great customers or clients.
- Your business’ social media platforms: Social media is a great way to network—and if you already have an audience, it’s probably full of potential connections that could help take your business to the next level (including potential customers, colleagues, business associates and mentors). So start conversations, build relationships, and look for ways to network and connect with your audience.
In-person Networking Opportunities
- Conferences: Conferences can introduce you to a wide network of people—especially if you’re able to get on the schedule as a speaker. When you speak at a conference, attendees will actively seek you out to talk about your presentation or expertise, which can help you make new connections (it’s like networking comes to you!). And if you can’t present, signing up as an attendee can also be a great opportunity to network (since most conference itineraries include built-in networking activities).
- Trade shows: Trade shows are well-known for their opportunities to network, connect, and drive new business. (In fact, according to a survey from Oxford Economics, more than half of business travelers said that 5 to 20% of their company’s new customers were a direct result of their participation in trade shows.)
- Professional organizations: Professional organizations can be a great way to connect with other people in your industry—including other business owners and top talent to recruit for your company.
- Referral clubs: If you want your networking efforts to lead to new business, try a referral club, where members refer clients to each other’s businesses—and which can help drive a higher number of referrals than a standard professional organization. Depending on the club, they may be open to any business owners in your local area (like Rotary International), or may limit membership to one member per industry.
Not Finding the Right Opportunity? Create Your Own
If you’re not finding the right opportunity to network for your business, create your own! Hosting your own event—whether that’s an in-person or virtual event—can be a great way to build out your professional contacts and help meet your business goals.
How to Make the Most of Business Networking (and Drive the Most Leads): Be Prepared
Just like you wouldn’t lead a board meeting or pitch a client with major potential without doing the necessary prep work if you want to drive the best results from your networking efforts—online or off—you’ll need to prepare.
In order to make the most out of your networking opportunities, you’ll want to make sure to:
Do Your Research
As mentioned, you wouldn’t walk into a potential client’s office and pitch them without doing your research. The more you know about who they are, what they need and how your company can provide a solution, the better poised you are to close the deal.
It’s the same idea with networking. If you want to be a successful networker, you need to do your research—and figure out who you’re networking with, the issues they’re struggling with, and how you can provide them with some sort of support or solution.
For example, if you’re attending an industry conference, look at the attendee list and see if there are any companies there that you’d like to collaborate with. Then, figure out who is going to be representing the company at the event, connect with them on LinkedIn and come up with some talking points.
That way, when you do connect with them at the event, a) you’ll know what you want to say, and b) they’ll know you did your homework and prepared for the conversation—both of which can help you drive better outcomes from the opportunity.
Even though your goal with business networking is to grow your business, whether your efforts ultimately lead to growth all boils down to your ability to build meaningful relationships.
So instead of focusing on your end goal (whether that’s landing a new customer or getting a better deal with a vendor), focus on building those relationships.
When you’re networking in person, don’t go into the conversation thinking about what you can get from it; instead, take a genuine interest in the person you’re connecting with. Use the 80/20 rule—and spend the majority of your time listening to your new connection versus talking about yourself or your company. When it is your turn to talk, avoid aggressive sales pitches—and instead, talk about your business from a place of passion and authenticity.
Approaching networking from this place won’t necessarily lead to instant results (e.g., you’re probably not going to sell anything or get a fellow business owner to agree to a joint marketing venture). But it will build trust and rapport, and lay the foundation for a long-lasting relationship (which is where the real results come from, anyway).
Learn the Art of the Follow-up
When you connect with someone, whether online or at an in-person event, you have the opportunity to lay the foundation for a business relationship. But in order for that relationship to develop, that one conversation isn’t going to be enough—you need to stay on their radar and continue to foster the connection.
Or, in other words, you need to learn the art of the follow-up.
When you meet someone at a networking event (online or offline), make sure to follow up with them in some way within 24 hours—and make sure to reference something specific about your interaction. Chances are, you’re not the only person they’ve connected with, so you may need to jog their memory of who you are and where, when, and how you connected.
For example, if you sit next to someone at a conference and start a conversation, follow up with a LinkedIn request letting them know it was great to talk to them. If you connected with a speaker at a virtual event, follow up with an email letting them know how much you enjoyed their presentation.
Then, look for ways to continue building the relationship. Did you network with a business owner who mentioned their company was struggling with a particular issue? Offer to get together for a meeting to share your insights and ideas for solutions. Did you meet a job-seeker you think could be a great fit for your company? Offer to review their resume and have them come in to meet your team.
The point is, using networking to connect with other people is great—but if you want your efforts to grow your business, you need to follow up with those connections and continue fostering those relationships.
Track Your Networking Leads
If you want to maximize your networking efforts, you need to understand what’s working, what’s not working and what’s leading to the most—and the highest quality—leads.
And the way to do that? Tracking your networking efforts.
Anytime you make a connection, you’ll want to collect as much data about the connection as you can, including:
- Where you made the connection
- What kind of connection it is (potential customer, potential employee, potential partnership, etc.)
- When and how often you follow up
- Any business outcome that comes from your efforts (e.g., after two follow-ups, did that potential employee schedule an interview—and ultimately accept an offer at your company?)
Tracking all of this data will help you get a better understanding of where to focus your networking efforts—and how to maximize them in the future. For example, you might find that a huge percentage of your new customers in a quarter came from a single trade show—which means that, moving forward, you want to make that trade show a priority.
Moving Forward With Business Networking
Business networking—both on and offline—is an essential part of helping you forge the valuable connections you need to take your business to the next level. And now that you know how to make the most of your efforts, all that’s left to do? Get out there and start networking!
This post was updated in October 2020.