Established professionals and those who are new in business often have a difference of opinion about going to networking events. Many old-timers in business say that live, in-person networking meetings are one of their most important sources of prospective clients, while the newcomers frequently claim to not see much return from attending these events. It’s the professionals’ length of time in business that seems to influence their view, not their age in years. So, what’s going on here?

Business networking

Let’s define the kind of IRL (that’s “in real life,” if you’ve missed this acronym) networking that builds business. It’s not just circulating through a room, shaking hands and exchanging introductions. A broader view of networking is creating a pool of contacts from which you can draw clients, referrals, resources, ideas, and information. Your business network can and should contain colleagues, competitors, a wide range of business people, and personal friends, as well as clients and prospects.

Meeting people at organized events is one of the easiest ways to begin building an extensive network like this. The first secret to effective networking is choosing the right kind of events to attend. Don’t spend all your time networking within your profession. Be sure that some of the events you go to are also attended by potential clients, and by other professionals who may be able to refer business to you.

Here are some popular choices for networking events:

  • Chamber of Commerce mixers, workshops, and award ceremonies
  • Service clubs such as Rotary and Lions Club
  • Trade and professional association meetings and conferences where clients or potential referral partners gather
  • Lectures, workshops, conferences, and fundraisers hosted by educational institutions, community organizations, and affinity groups
  • Social, cultural, and sporting events that include receptions or other mix-and-mingle time
  • Meetups and private gatherings organized for the purpose of meeting new people and schmoozing
  • Lead exchange groups like Business Networking International (BNI) and LeTip

The way to get the most value from networking events is to become a member of the sponsoring group. You will have more success in your IRL networking if you go back to the same groups over and over than if you keep going to new groups all the time. Find two or three that seem to have the right mix of people, and keep going back.

When you attend an event, try to spend about half your time re-connecting with people you already know, and the other half making new contacts. A good general rule is to limit any one conversation to no more than ten minutes. You don’t need an excuse to break away. Simply say, “I’ve enjoyed talking to you. May I have your card?” and offer your own card in exchange. Or ask to exchange emails, phone numbers, or LinkedIn profiles.

It’s much more important to collect a card or contact info than to give out your own. This is the second secret to effective networking: if you don’t follow up with the people you meet, you are wasting your time in meeting them. It is simply untrue that people will “get in touch when they have a need” for you. The truth is that if they have met you only once, they probably don’t even remember you, and it’s even less likely that they will remember where to find your details.

Follow up with the people you meet immediately. For those who are potential clients, call or email to reintroduce yourself. Remind them what you do, and if appropriate, ask to have a sales conversation. If directly soliciting business is inappropriate in your profession — psychotherapy, for example, or in some cases, law — you can still make contact, perhaps with a “nice-to-meet-you” note.

When you meet people who aren’t likely targets for your business, but could lead you to prospective clients or refer business in the future, call or email to suggest coffee or lunch, or offer to stop by their business for a chat.

For both prospective clients and likely referral sources, after making contact once, put them in your calendar or contact management system to follow up with again in a month or two.

Following up over time with prospects and others in your network can take many different forms. In some cases, it’s appropriate to call or email and ask if a prospect is ready to do business with you. But you can also contact them simply to ask what’s new or to share some of your own news. If you send regular mailings, add contacts to your postal mailing list or ask permission to subscribe them to your ezine. You can also send periodic reminders in the form of emails, postcards, or letters.

Another powerful follow-up technique is to share information or invitations tailored to the individual. Forward to your contacts links to articles you see on issues you know they’re concerned about. Pass along invitations to upcoming events they might find interesting. Remembering people’s concerns and interests in this way will position you as a trusted resource, and encourage them to choose you when they are ready to do business or make a referral.

If all this sounds like hard work, you’re right. Building relationships takes time and effort. But these relationships are the core of networking. The people in your network should be people you truly enjoy interacting with, because if you’re doing it right, you’ll be spending a lot of time with them.

And that’s the final secret of effective IRL networking — the one that separates the successful professional from the rookie who may not make it. Networking takes time to pay off. You need to put in the effort now, and trust that you will see results later. The professionals who followed that rule, when they were new, are now the established successes who can tell newcomers that networking events really work.

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