Last week I posted a story about networking on LinkedIn that surprisingly got a lot of attention because it focused on an idea that is often overlooked by many networkers and that is ‘mutual benefit’.

As I suggested, networking is not marketing, sales, or a numbers game.  It’s a relationship game where the objective is to help others get what they want before what you want.

So what is networking?

Networking is a social activity where groups of like-minded individuals come together to share information about themselves, their area of expertise, provide and receive business referrals to/from other members, and serve as a resource for others.

Business networking serves many purposes: sales, general marketing, recruiting, job-hunting, knowledge exchange, and business development and out of all of these, business development is the one that it supports best.

Meeting new people in person is one of the best ways to market yourself, your company, products, and services and it’s an environment where you’ll have the opportunity to expand your contact list, particularly when you meet someone that will be of benefit to one another.

So how do you make networking work for you?

  1. Choose the right group – You’ll want to find associations, conferences, and groups where your prospects meet.  If you work for a company that provides products and services to local individual business owners, you’ll want to find groups that are located in your immediate area.  I have a friend who’s in commercial real estate so he belongs to a group that mainly consists of builders and developers of industrial buildings and retail strip centers.  Think of geography, size, sector, social, political, trade, academic/technical, etc.  The more relevant your targeting of groups and contacts, the more fruitful your meetings and referrals will be.
  2. There’s always an opportunity to network – Almost any person that you meet, whether it be a member of your networking group or the person in line with you at Starbucks, has the potential to become an opportunity to work with in the future or introduce you to someone who could make a difference in your career.
  3. Understand the difference between networking and prospecting – Don’t view someone you meet at a networking function as a prospect but someone you’re attempting to build a relationship with.  Ian Blei draws this simple distinction between the two.  “Networking is a part of your overall Marketing Strategy, which obviously includes many other facets. Prospecting is a part of your overall Sales Strategy, also including many other facets. They’re not interchangeable at all.”
  4. It’s about quality, not quantity – It’s important that you make quality contacts and to focus your attention on connecting with individuals who you’d like to work with and help out in the future.  I worked with a guy who thought that coming back to the office with the most business cards was more important than establishing a connection with others at networking functions.  He quickly earned a bad reputation and function attendees avoided him like the plague.
  5. Volunteer – Look for opportunities to volunteer on a committee or, even better, start your own committee that will benefit the members of your group or start a “group” of your own on a social network like LinkedIn that is specific to your industry or area of expertise.
  6. Make a great first impression – Once you’ve decided to approach a group member you’ll want to ask them what they do for a living before you talk about yourself and your company.  Eventually the conversation will turn to you and what you do for a living.  This is where your response, your “elevator pitch”, should be short and simple and contain enough information where the member requests more information about you.  If you’re in hotel sales it could be something like “I put heads in beds”.  Short and creative tag lines will make a great first impression.  From this point you can expand your pitch to include additional details that will provide “value” to whom you are speaking with.
  7. Be different – What separates you from the rest of the members and attendees at the networking function?  The “difference” must be something appealing that others will find interesting.  If you can’t come up with a twist then find someone who has created some sort of spark when you first met and work it into your own “difference”.
  8. It’s better to give than receive – Make sure that you think of others  first (mutual benefit) before you think of yourself.  If you are perceived as a “giver” and not a “taker” you’ll quickly become a trusted resource to others.  Good deeds attract others and that’s one of the keys to successful networking.  The referrals will come…be patient.
  9. Make sure to follow up – You have a card that has all the information that you’ll need to conduct additional research, if necessary, but what’s more important, to follow up with the member in a timely fashion (the day after you made the connection).  Send an email thanking him/her for their time, include a reference about your conversation or a remark that was made, then ask permission to continue to stay in touch.  If you receive an email response to your original correspondence make sure you keep it in an accessible file or database so you can continue to expand the business relationship.
  10. Social Networks – The four social networks that you should include in your networking arsenal are LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and Blogging.  There are a number of like-minded groups on LinkedIn that you can join and as a member of the group make sure you contribute on a regular basis.  Twitter can connect you with followers who you can share your knowledge and insight with, even if it’s only 140 characters.  If you’re in sales, you can create a video of your pitch or industry insight and post it on YouTube.  Lastly, if you like to write there’s no better place to separate yourself from your competition than through your own blog.

You network to meet people, both online and offline, so that you can build relationships, provide assistance, receive referrals, and generate new business. Whatever networking avenues you choose, make the most of them.

Is networking working for you?  What other tips would you like to include?

Networking is and excerpt from my new book “Prepare for Liftoff – How to Launch a Career in Sales”.  If you’d like a complimentary copy I’d be happy to email you one and feel free to share it with your friends!