Do your homework.
In Boston, there are so many networking events out there it can become a blur. If you wanted to you could literally go to a professional networking event, mixer, forum, fireside chat or any number of events every day of the week. You’ll never get to all of them, and you shouldn’t try. If networking is going to be a part of your marketing plan, then you need a roadmap. Are you looking to cast as large a net as possible or trying to focus in on a certain industry or segment? Does a large room full to the rafters make for a good environment for you or something a little more low key and intimate?
This speaks to two questions you need to answer, who are you trying to meet and what kind of environment is you best suited to?
For my purposes, I steer toward startup related tech events and I like a big room full of people. This speaks to the audience I want to meet and what makes me comfortable. I deal primarily with technology startups in my business. Over the course of time, I’ve been able to find the nicheier (I might have just made up a word there) events in town. It didn’t start that way. First it started with more generic chamber of commerce events, wide net stuff with a little bit of everything. Over time I was able to break down and target my audience and then find those events. If you can do the same thing quickly you can save yourself a lot of time.
The second question of environment plays a big role as well. I like a bigger room because it allows me to blend in a little more, especially if I don’t know anyone and I just hang back a bit. It’s easier to do that in a room with 150 people than in a room of 15, that’s just me. Some people may be intimidated by a big crowd full of strangers, especially a big crowd where a lot of folks already seem to know each other. In this case you may want to find smaller events with more structure than just an open networking session. The structure can keep the ‘it’s a zoo in here’ mentality at bay and simply be a less intimidating event environment.
Have a goal.
When you go into a networking event, don’t go in without having a goal in mind. If you go into an event with the goal of ‘I’m going to meet everyone there’, you can go that route. It better be a smaller event and it better be geared toward your favored audience.
A better way to go would be along the lines of ‘I want to meet 3 new people tonight’ or ‘I want to meet at least one person who would make a good strategic relationship’. The best events I see are those that have a registration list. This is a huge tool and a leg up if you take the time to use it. Such a list will allow you to narrow down your focus more. Instead of ‘I want to meet 3 new people’ you can put together a list of 3 specific individuals.
Point being, have a game plan going into an event, have an idea as to what you want to accomplish and go execute.
Introduce yourself, then make an introduction.
Some people I know that are fantastic networkers do this. If they meet someone at an event, especially if it is someone that they have never met before, they will have a conversation. During that conversation these really good networkers will pull someone else into their conversation and introduce that new person.
It does a few things. It establishes credibility that you are not just there for yourself but are there to help other people. This extends not only to a person you have just met but also to the 3rd person who just got introduced to someone new. I know this works because I’ve been the guy having a conversation with such a networker and that someone introduces me to a 3rd person brought into the conversation. I’ve also been the 3rd person. There have been multiple instances in both situations where I have been able to establish worthwhile business relationships.
Take it upon yourself to introduce yourself and introduce others.
What can you do for others?
A big mistake people make is to go into a networking event only looking for what they can get out of it for themselves. It’s the old ‘givers gain’ approach, and it works a whole lot better than most approaches. When you see posts similar to this giving advice on how to approach a networking event, one item that you will see again and again is don’t sell. Don’t go into an event looking to pitch everyone you see and try to sell them. If you are going to network, the likelihood is that most of the people you will meet will be people you have never met before. I don’t know anyone who likes to be sold, even less so by a stranger.
Networking is about establishing relationships, that means building some trust and that means not pitching every person you come across. The hopeless approach, and I’ve seen this, is to go in with your polished pitch, try to sell everyone in the joint, get nowhere, say it was a waste of time, stop networking entirely. Awful, just awful.
One of the better networkers I know says two things when he meets someone new at an event. After introducing himself he says ‘what can I do for you/how can I be of help to you’ and ‘who can I help you meet’? I run an event myself, and if you’ve been, you may know who I’m talking about (looking at you Stevie Z). It’s a great approach, it’s not salesy, it’s helpful. It’s an honest attempt at trying to help someone out that you haven’t met before. People remember that. It builds trust more quickly and effectively than another stale sales pitch.
I have been steered toward quite a few valuable resources by this gentleman because he doesn’t just do it once, he says the same thing to me every time I see him. And you know what? I leverage the heck out of him because his contacts are fantastic. Think I won’t try to help him out the next time I get an opportunity?
This last point is probably the best piece of advice I’d have for someone navigating networking events. See how you can help out others, and then go out of your way to do it. Your chance to pitch will come. You won’t even have to because others will be looking out for you so long as they know what you bring to the table. Let people know what you do and what your capabilities are, but leave the sales pitch at the door.