How many times have you gone to a networking event, met people, gathered business cards and then nothing happened afterwards? If you are like me, this is more of a rule than an exception. Networking, just like any other soft skills, is very hard, requires a solid strategy and it takes a long time. "Drive by" networking may work for some, but it has not worked for me.
Many of the large networking events are mostly "netknowing" events masquerading as networking events. Most people who attend these events are there to get something and if there is no get, they think the event was ineffective and don't follow up; they hope to have a better luck the next time. Many people will keep repeating this, expending a time, money and energy and hope to get lucky. Let's face it, if you were doing well in your business and are very busy, would you take time attending networking events or focus on your existing customers?
Networking, according to Derek Coburn, author of "Networking Is Not Working: Stop Collecting Business Cards and Start Making Meaningful Connections" is "any activity that increases the value of your network and/or the value you contribute to it." It has to be a three way win situation where your network benefits, individuals benefit and you benefit. If you don't have these three, then you don't have a golden network.
We all know that networks are key to success since things are moving so fast and we all seem to suffer from time poverty. We often need to make a fast decision and good network can pay a huge dividends when you don't have time, money, energy and know-how to do a due diligence. As this Forbes blog "How To Increase Your Likability And Grow Your Business" says that "We do business with people we know, like and trust." All three of these traits have to be there to network successfully, and it does not happen in any one networking event. Networking is a process. You have to know, learn and practice the process to become good at networking.
From my experience, here are the steps that you have to go through to really reach the network nirvana. You have to approach networking like you are trying to win a B2B sales deal---It's a process.
Step 1: "NetKnowing"
Anytime you attend a networking event or meet someone at a party, you are engaging in "netknowing." All you are doing in this first interaction is to just get to know the other person and, most important, not to take up too much time. I usually only give business cards if there is some connection and the person is at least going to follow up with a thank you. I have been surprised that people you meet at networking events and parties fail to follow-up. I explain why there is very little (or no) follow ups in the blog "Why People Fail to Follow-up?"
Step 2: "NetLiking"
Let's suppose you meet the same person you met previously. You may keep the relationship at "netknowing" or may advance to "netliking," meaning that you like the person since you have something in common or he maybe a good resource that you like to have a conversation with. Note, you are still not networking since you are not sure what the other person's true capabilities are or whether he is trustworthy. You may start doing some research if you are interested in exploring networking with that person.
Step 3: "NetMeeting"
Once there is a mutual liking, it is time to set up a meeting (or even a phone conversation) and get to know the person better. This should be viewed as someone you are hiring for a job. You want to find out the person's talent, interests, goals, network, and knowledge. You want to understand how each of you can help each other out. You want to explain how you work and the methodology you use to move up the network chain. If there is an agreement then work on trying to move up the networking ladder and ultimately to the "nettrusting" stage.
Suppose you like the person and think there is something that you two can work on together, now you are taking a step toward real networking. Note, the key word is "working." Unless you are working with a person, you are actually "notworking." Working could be as simple as writing a blog about the person's expertise where he has to make some contribution ( Note: I usually never get past this stage with one or two rare exceptions); perhaps you two may decide to co-write a blog ( Note: I have not been able to do this with anyone I have asked), or just work together on some idea(I have not been successful with this either). Unless you have done three things together where there is no money exchanged, you have not networked well.
Step 5: "NetTrusting"
If you have have one at least three net "working" things with someone you like to work with, you have now moved to the final stage of networking that I call "netrusting." This means there is no score keeping at this point since you have developed a trusting relationship and delivered value. This means you don't have to think when someone at this level recommends someone or something to you. This makes life easier since what this does is that you don't have to expend a lot of time, money and energy.
Step 6: "NetEvaluating" and "NetPruning"
One of the things is that networking is about meeting some objectives you have defined. To ensure that it is meeting your objectives, you do have to evaluate your network every six months to see if you need to readjust it. The network has to be current otherwise you will lose your reputation or not meet your business objectives. Also, you want to make sure that the people on your network are not moving into friendship where you overlook their weaknesses.
Networking is not that much different than how multi-level marketing works. The person with the most solid network usually makes the most money. In a sense, network is wealth. We all have to be strategic and should be working on it all the time. If you are in sales, you are constantly prospecting and trying to move a lead from suspect to prospect to customer and repeat customers. You need a similar type of a process for networking success to move a contact from "netknowing" to networking to "nettrusting."
But it all has to start somewhere. Next I discuss I to get the most out of a networking event.
Large networking events usually are not that effective, but sometimes you can't avoid them. Suppose you are at a networking event that has close to 200 people. Here is what I would recommend you do:
- Bring business cards to the event to meet new people you have never met before. If the person is interested ask them how they like to network since if you are not aligned then there is no point in wasting time. The reason for this is that most of the people you meet at a networking event fail to follow-up.
- All you are going to do is introduce yourself and ask if you could put them on your mailing list to keep them updated on what you are doing. If they don't like it, they can always opt out anytime. Ask them to take a look at it and see if there is something we can work on together. You may want to write down three salient things about the individual on the back of the card.
- Save two cards in case you meet someone on your way home.
- Follow them on social media, especially Twitter and LinkedIn to see how you can engage with them. This is the least you can do at this point and it is not that hard. Since you met these people face-to-face, I would put them under "netknowing."
- Use the tit for tat technique on where to place each of the individuals you met. If you send something that does not require a lot of work and the person still does not respond, then don't pursue them. Use one-strike and you are out policy at this point of networking.
- Expect a response from only a handful to move forward with them to see if they are going to become knowers, likers or networkers.
- You have to create a system for networking otherwise you will waste hours without really networking.
- You want to spend time "netknowing" people you are likely to meet face-to-face again. This is more effective than spending a lot of time with people you are not likely to run into again, if ever. Most of us spend time with these people and it rarely ever works out. Proximity is key to networking.
- I would avoid people that look frazzled and disorganized. Networking is a business event though it may take place outside an office. You want to network with people who are calm, composed and in control. This means do not drink so you are coherent.
Why Move Slowly When Networking?
In his blog, "Invest in Lines, not Dots," Marc Suster explains how he uses this concept to invest in startups as a venture capitalist I think this concept applies just as well to networking. They are not that dissimilar; you are investing in a relationship in networking. You need to establish a dot on your network map, so on the next time you put a dot, you can start connecting them to create a line. You want to start creating lines to really advance your networking. If it stays at the dot level, then all you will create is a scatter plot of all the people without working on creating a line.
Another person who subscribes to this approach is Tim Ferris, an author, entrepreneur and an angel investor. In this You Tube Interview for the Behind the Brand with Bryan Elliot, Tim talks about how he connected with influential people when he was writing his first book. At a conference he would spend his time at a blogger lounge sponsored by vendors where influential people were showing up for interviews. Tim would start a conversation with them and would ask them questions such as what they were doing, what they were excited about, etc. If they expressed interest in what he was doing (which most of them did) then he would do the following:
- Tell them that he was writing a book; say that he was nervous about it and was here to learn.
- Offer to send them the book and say that he does not think they would like the whole book, but he will mark 10 to 20 pages that they might like.
The main thing Tim recommends is that people don't like to be pitched hard and also give them an easy out. What he found is that soft sell is very undervalued when it comes to networking, especially with influential people, The most effective way to target them is in person since it is the least crowded channel. He advises that influential people are not going to endorse the message without first trusting the messenger. I think this is something many of people often forget when we are networking. Networking is hard work and has to be done without people feeling like you are trying too hard.
In Derek Coburn's book, he defines three systems of networking:
Networking 1.0: People attend a large networking event to get something. This is not that effective today since people comes across needy and have no interest or understanding that networking is a real long game.
Networking 2.0: People take on the mode of pay it forward where they take on the belief that you have to give to get. Some people may be very genuine, but, according to Coburn, this is also ineffective since it is used as a tactic rather than a strategy.
Networking 3.0: People joining a small group of like minded individuals who bring value to the network and contribute in a way that also allows them to extract value in a strategic way. Joining this kind of networking club costs money and it can be very effective if you find a group that is compatible with one's values and behaviors. Again this is trial and error and can take a long time before you know it is working.
What If You Are an Introvert?
Many of us are not extroverts, especially if we are in the professional field such as IT, medicine, technical, etc. In her HBR blog titled "Networking for Introverts," Dorie Clark (entrepreneur, marketing strategy consultant, speaker and author) offers some excellent suggestions.
Create your own events
This is a very smart suggestion. Rather than waste time going to a large event and strike out, it is probably better to get few people for drinks or dinner and get to have a more in-depth conversation rather than engage with drive-by networkers.
Know when you are at your best
Networking is hard in that you do have to be attentive and unless you are up for it, it is probably better to skip it than make a half-hearted attempt at it.
Do a cost/benefit analysis
It is business after all and if there is really no benefit considering that time could be spent doing other things such as writing a blog, making a podcast, or making a video then it is better to skip it.
Timing is everything
Sometimes the timing is just not right. If you have very little time, or none, then you are less likely to follow-up with people or even show much interest. Networking is a business event and first impressions do matter so skip till there is some time in your schedule.
As you can see networking is hard and there are all kinds of systems people are using to gain advantage and make life easier. There is no perfect networking system, but I think it is better to have some kind of system than networking like an amateur.
Lastly, your best future networkers are going to be your current networkers. Since you met them once, you already know them. Next time you meet them you can decide where to go from there on your networking ladder: stay the same or move up to the next level.
So as you can see networking is hard, "notworking" is easy and something we end up doing if we don't realize that this is a long game and not one and done thing.