Business networking isn't just swapping business cards. It's about making the right connections at the right time, and investing in your business' future.
You know networking. Maybe it’s activating your network for upcoming jobs or building out your list of industry contacts. But business networking is more than just growing your LinkedIn list or swapping business cards at an event. Done right, it will bring in new leads and customers.
According to a recent study, 85% of people say in-person meetings and conferences let them build more meaningful business relationships. Building relationships is an important function that can help you expand your business.
Here, you’ll learn not only how networking generates leads, but also how building relationships can expedite your business’ growth.
The Business Case for Networking
Before you jump in, it’s important to know what your business networking goals are. Your network should be built around those goals, so you can see a reward on your investment of time and energy. The best networking is both fulfilling and brings in results.
The three common ways you can network to meet business goals include:
- Increase visibility in your industry: Attending and speaking at networking events creates awareness of your business. building relationships in your own industry positions you as an involved leader who’s in the know. Ultimately, this boosts your visibility and establishes you as a subject matter expert.
- Lead generation for new customers or clients: As your visibility increases, so does your reputation. And as your reputation improves, prospective clients become more eager to engage you.
- Finding potential new employees: If you’re keen to build your brand as an employer, networking in-person or online provides a number of opportunities. According to recent data, 85% of open jobs are filled via networking. Many professionals attend networking events to source new job opportunities. Find high-achievers in your networks to increase the likelihood that you’ll find other high-performers.
How to Identify Business Networking Opportunities
When it comes to diving into networking opportunities, you can go online, offline, or both. To help you decide, here’s how to find the best opportunities in both areas.
Online Networking Opportunities
- Facebook Events: Use the world’s largest social network to find relevant business events near you.
- Meetup.com: Use this platform to join existing local business events or create one of your own.
- LinkedIn groups: The social network for professionals offers private groups that cater to a variety of industries, holders of professional designations (i.e., CPAs) and other groups for business leaders.
- Private Facebook groups: Admittedly, Facebook’s variety of professional groups doesn’t hold a candle to LinkedIn. But with a little poking aroud, you’ll find dozens of groups organized around specific industries as well as more general business topics like entrepreneurship and remote work.
- Webinars: To connect with other people interested in similar topics or pain points, attend online webinars. You can attend live events and meet with potential contacts and customers. You can also host your own webinar to connect with other pros in your industry as well as prospective customers.
In-Person Networking Opportunities
- Conferences: Sign up as either an attendee or a speaker for relevant conferences. Conferences can introduce you to a wider network of people, especially as a speaker. Conference itineraries typically include built-in networking activities, so you can meet other attendees organically. As a speaker, many attendees will actively seek you out to chat about your topic or subject matter expertise.
- Trade shows: A recent Oxford Economics Study showed that between 5% and 20% of new customers come from trade shows. If your business’ clients are going to be somewhere, that’s where you want to be.
- Service/referral clubs: These organizations can provide a higher number of referrals than a typical industry club. Some organizations are open to any business owners in a local area, like Rotary International. Other clubs, like BNI, accept only one person per industry (i.e., one accountant, one aesthetician, etc.) and the other members work to get referrals for one another’s businesses.
- Host your own event: Research shows that hosting your own branded event can provide a full pipeline of leads and boost brand awareness. According to recent research, successful businesses are spending 1.7X the average marketing budget on live events because of the potential ROI. Live, branded events are also scalable, based on your needs and budget. Businesses can opt for an intimate industry meetup or go all-in with a full-blown, multi-day conference.
How to Make the Most of Business Networking: Prepare for Your Event
To get the most out of in-person business networking, it’s crucial to do some prep work ahead of time. As with any sales call, you’ll need to get an in-depth understanding of the unique opportunities presented at each event.
To help you get ready and make the most of your event, follow these three steps:
Do Your Research
You wouldn’t make a lead generation call without doing your homework. So you’ll need to do your research before every networking event.
Most events will publish a list of the companies attending. Review this list ahead of time to see which companies are a good fit for your product or service. From there, create a shortlist of four to five of those companies that you’d like to talk to so that you can be sure to introduce yourself.
If you want to connect with any of the event speakers, review the list before the event and reach out via Twitter or LinkedIn. Share your excitement about their talk or subject matter expertise and then follow up with them again 2-3 days before the event. One tip, though: make sure you give them lots of room. Speaking can be stressful and tiring!
For more B2C or service-based businesses, do some searching online to find interest-based meet-ups or events in your area. For example, a boutique wedding rental brand could search for wedding shows locally to connect with brides interested in the company’s products for their big day.
Even though your ultimate goal with business networking is to grow your business, the core reason to attend networking events is to build relationships. And not in a superficial, way either. Superficial connections result in superficial results. So keep in mind that you’re not there to make a sale. At least, not yet.
The first step is to introduce yourself and your company to prospective leads and contacts. Instead of being aggressive with a sales pitch, lay the groundwork for a long-term relationship. You likely won’t make any sales the same day—instead, focus on getting to know more about the prospective customer and their needs. From there, you can build a rapport and trust.
Use the 80/20 Rule
When engaging colleagues and clients at networking events, it’s important to listen far more than you talk. As a rule of thumb, try listening 80% of the time and only talking or responding 20% of the time.
So, after introducing yourself and your business to a new contact, practice active listening. Get to know them, their business and their unique needs. Ask open-ended questions to try to fully understand their challenges and pain points. Even if these contacts don’t become customers themselves, they may refer other customers to you.
Of course, also keep in mind that everyone is different, and pay attention to how comfortable they are carrying the conversation. Part of active listening is learning how to engage in a way that makes the people around you feel centered.
Learn the Art of the Follow-up
After meeting a potential lead at an event, don’t let that contact fizzle. Follow-up with them within 24 hours after the event.
Common touchpoints include reaching out over email (if they shared it with you) or on social media via LinkedIn or Twitter. Because you both likely met quite a few people at the event, remind them who you are. Jog their memory by mentioning something specific about your conversation, like the topic of the speaker session you both enjoyed.
Then, where relevant and valuable, offer to help them. For example, if they mentioned something their company is struggling with, offer a solution or idea. From there, prompt them to meet up to continue the conversation. The meeting can be completely informal—for example, a coffee near their office.
If you value the relationship, it’s important get to a face-to-face follow-up. Research research shows that in-person sales conversations are more effective than online. Around 40% of prospects become new customers after an in-person meeting.
Track Your Networking Efforts
At this point, you’ve done your homework, made some connections and followed up. While you may have earned a few new customers from your efforts so far, it’s important to track all of your networking efforts. And, perhaps not intuitively, not just the connections and meetings that that netted new leads.
To understand what’s working (and what isn’t), you can use your CRM tool to add relevant contacts and tag each one with the corresponding event info (i.e., you met at the 2019 CTA Conference). Then you can track each lead through every stage of the buyer journey. To get the full picture of your efforts, check back monthly or quarterly to see how successful each lead was. It also helps to create reports for each event you attend to understand its full ROI. How many leads were generated from that specific event? How many net-new customers did you land?
Otherwise, make sure you’re keeping track of other positive relationships you’ve gathered while networking. Partners? Employees? Mentors? All of this information can be tied back to the what, why, and how of what you did, so you can replicate your non-sales success again in the future.
Once you understand the ROI of the event, you can make better decisions about which networking events are worth your time, effort and investment.
Moving Forward With Business Networking
Attending these business networking events and leveraging online groups can forge valuable connections that help grow your business long after the event is over. Whether you pursue connections online or offline, be sure to go into your networking endeavours with a game plan. Create your business networking strategy, make your connections, follow-up, and track your efforts.
about the author
Lindsey Peacock is a writer, editor, and American expat based in Toronto. When she isn’t helping businesses tell their stories, you can find her at the nearest dog park with her beloved ginger husky, Charlie.