Networking is important for business owners — but networking takes time, and time is always in short supply. The answer may lie in having a plan ahead of time. Putting some thought into your networking strategy can help you select the right events and make the most out of them when you arrive, giving you the biggest return on the hours and effort you've invested. Ask yourself the following questions before you plan your next networking foray.
Why Are You Attending Networking Events?
Think about the people you hope to meet at these events. Sales prospects? Potential vendor partners? Other small businesspeople in your field? The first step to planning a networking strategy is being able to define your main goal. Understanding that can help you be more selective (and successful) in finding events to attend.
What Is Your Preferred Networking Style?
Some people do their best networking during after-hours events that are loosely structured and include passed apps and an open bar. Others prefer more structured interactions — a seminar with discussion groups, for instance. Look for networking opportunities that suit your style. Business volunteering groups, happy-hour meetups that feature speakers on particular topics, trade shows where the conversation is all business — cast a wide net to look for the format that is most comfortable and efficient for you.
Who Will Be There?
Now that you're being more selective about which events to attend, you can concentrate on making the most of those meetings. Most networking events include RSVP lists where you can review who will be there. Review this list ahead of time, and do an internet search on particularly interesting people or businesses. That way, you can seek out these attendees when you get there. Have a few questions or topics in mind to help start a casual conversation that can break the ice.
What to Wear?
It seems trivial to think much about what you'll wear to the event, but it makes a big difference when you're mingling with strangers. Projecting the right appearance is key, so think about the image you want to convey during this event, and dress accordingly. Remember, however, to balance this with your own comfort and convenience. Don't wear high heels or a suit jacket if they're just going to make you miserably uncomfortable, for example — a relaxed and confident demeanor is ultimately more important than your clothes. Also: Have business cards or your phone handy in case you need to exchange information, but keep your hands free for handshakes.
Can You Bring a Partner?
Going in with a coworker or business partner can help ensure you get the most out of these events. You'll have someone to strategize with, and you can work the room as a duo, covering more ground. Even if your networking goal is simply to promote yourself, it can help to bring a colleague so you can sing each other's praises.
Are You Enjoying Yourself?
It can be off-putting if networking event attendees are too transactional in their conversations — in other words, clearly looking for a business advantage and not really interested in small talk. Make it a goal to engage in interesting conversation and don't think too much about whether you've scored a business win. These personal conversations are laying the groundwork for potentially fruitful connections later on, so don't rush it — maybe you'll even have some fun.