Google “business networking” and you’ll see links to articles on how to increase your Facebook Likes and Twitter followers. Connecting with potential customers and business partners via social networking is, by now, an essential part of any company’s growth. Despite the skyrocketing impact of social media over the past decade, however, the importance of old-fashioned, face-to-face networking has not faded. Shaking hands at conferences and making chit chat at cocktail parties is still one of the best ways to expand your brand’s reach, build your business, and create vital partnerships. So, just how good are your networking skills? To turn that annual conference small talk into a critical company connection, look over this list of networking Dos and Don’ts.
DO research who is coming
If possible, look over the guest list for any conference or party and make a mental list of those folks you want to meet. Shawna Tregunna, founder and owner of ReSoMe.com, a social media company, explores who is coming online and uses social media to reach out to fellow attendees before the event. “I watch for mentions of [the event] on social media by hashtag or name. I also check out the guest list if it is public. If I see someone I want to connect with, I look for them on Twitter or LinkedIn and [send them a Tweet or message such as] ‘I see we are both headed to XYZ event! I would love to get a chance to say hi. Looking forward to connecting!’ Then, at the event, I have a list of people I know I will connect with,” says Tregunna.
DON’T be afraid to approach someone
“Take every advantage possible to meet new people,” says Lori Cheek, founder and CEO of Cheekd.com, a sort of reverse-engineered dating site that provides its members icebreakers they can use to introduce themselves to new people. “When attending networking events, I find that it’s most advantageous to go alone so that you’re forced to talk to new people,” suggests Cheek. “Understand everyone is there for a similar reason and, for the most part, want to make new connections, so don’t be shy—just walk up and introduce yourself. The only thing you have to lose is an opportunity.” Cheek also offers a reminder not to make quick judgments. “Efficiently communicate and never dismiss a single soul—you never know who you're talking to, who they might know, or how they'd be able to contribute [to your company].”
DO listen…and listen and listen
“Listen more than you talk. People invariably like someone who listens to them and makes them feel interesting and appreciated,” says Lisa Thompson, L.P.C., director of professional services for Pearson Partners International, Inc., a full-service retained executive search firm. Thompson suggests keeping your own story to a minimum. “Avoid immediately going into too much detail about what you offer. Unless they indicate a real interest by asking direct questions, you will bore them and they will want to escape,” suggests Thompson. “Practice describing what you do in just a couple of sentences.”
DON’T stay in just your industry
Getting beyond the folks within your industry can benefit your company in surprising ways. New ideas for marketing partnerships, insight on fresh ways to approach sales, and more solid business opportunities may arise from chatting with someone in another field or specialty. “It pays dividends to diversify your connections. Raise your awareness of the circles you spend your time in and if the circles have become too narrow—one type of industry, one type of profession—make it a point to widen the circle from time-to-time,“ writes founder and CEO of Impact Instruction Group Amy Franko in her e-book 35 Tips to Build Lasting Strategic Relationships.
Katie Shea, director of marketing at OrderGroove.com, a company that launches and manages subscription programs for major retailers, suggests taking a brief moment to take notes on people you meet. “If you are at a large networking event like a cocktail party or fundraiser, it's easy to collect dozens of cards, yet difficult to keep track of all of the different two- to three-minute conversations,” says Shea. “After a few conversations, take a break to write personal notes on the back of each card you've received—[things like] ‘NYU alum, born in South Africa, avid traveler.’ Not only will this jog your memory of the conversation, but your new contact is likely to be impressed that you remembered such a personal detail about him or her during later conversations.”
DON’T get stuck in conversations
Having a few ideas on how to exit a conversation is just as important as having opening lines to start one. Being “trapped” with one person for too long means missed opportunities to connect with others. “Learn to handle networking vultures and elegantly get out of a conversation with someone who wants to stick with you,” suggests Thompson. “You might say there is someone across the room you just have to speak to, or introduce that person to another and move along, or have other possible strategies up your sleeve.”
DO follow up in person
Keep that brief conversation going after the event with another face-to-face meeting—even if you don’t see an immediate use for the relationship. “You’ve heard the saying that if you need a relationship, it’s usually too late to build it. It’s often why people end up feeling as though they’re being insincere, because continual relationship building isn’t a habit built into their everyday life,” notes Franko. “A quick conversation with a new contact is rarely a bad thing, but where the deals happen is later down the road. Be sure to follow up—offer to buy coffee, lunch, a drink—with those individuals that you believe offer synergies to your business,” offers Shea.
DON’T have an out-of-date online presence
To cultivate and grow relationships, many go beyond “just touching base” periodic emails. They build on that face-to-face networking with social media, which means it is vital your LinkedIn account is always up-to-date, and you are active on at least one social media channel. “I will connect with everyone within 48 hours [of an event] on LinkedIn with a unique greeting and ask for their other social channels so we can stay in touch,” notes Tregunna. “I then try to do mentions of them on social media if they are active – ‘Great meeting <person> at <event> on <date>! If you haven't connected with them here you should try!’” That virtual connection keeps the lines of communication open and ready for future business opportunities that happen in person.