If networking makes you think of business cards, forced smiles, and awkward conversations, then I have good news for you: It doesn’t have to be that way!
In fact, if your idea of networking is attending an event and giving your contact information to as many people as possible, that’s not networking. Sure, it’s a start, but genuine connections happen over time, with consistent efforts to build relationships.
As cringeworthy as it may sometimes feel, the truth is, networking is still the number one way to land a job. A 2019 CivicScience survey of 1,535 U.S. adults found that 31% got their most recent job by tapping into their network. That method was more popular than any other, including job events and job boards.
Because of its potential benefits, I urge you to give networking another try. If you want to learn how to do business networking the right way, read on.
Want to Do Business Networking Right? Think Like a Marketer
When talking about networking, people are hesitant to talk about the marketing and sales aspect. I get it: No one wants to be “salesy.” But here’s the thing: Networking exists to create new business opportunities. That’s what makes it different from simply making friends—it has a specific career-advancing goal in mind.
There’s nothing wrong with marketing or sales, though there are right and wrong ways to go about both of them. To make it easy for you, below, I’ve outlined a five-step process for how to do business networking in a practical, non-awkward way.
5 Steps to Business Networking Success
Step 1: Define your goal.
Before beginning any networking efforts, answer this: What do you hope to accomplish? If you’re doing business networking just because everyone told you that’s what you should be doing, you’re going to be disappointed because you don’t even know what you want.
Get specific: Are you looking for a cofounder? Do you want to find a remote job? Do you need $5,000/month of client contracts? Or are you searching for a mentor to help you improve your software development skills?
Decide what success looks like for you. That way, you’ll be able to map out a plan to get there, and you’ll know when you’ve arrived.
Step 2: Find your target audience.
Every good marketer knows their target audience. They don’t try to cast a wide net and get everyone to come to them (that never works, anyway). They have a particular person, a well-defined demographic, that they know has a problem they can solve.
Revisit your goals in step one and answer this: Who is your target audience for business networking? Is it DIY crafters? Is it healthcare tech executives? Is it first-year college students?
Once you know who you’re looking for, you’ll know where to find them. For example, if you’re hoping to network with DIY crafters, you might decide to attend scrapbook conventions or join Facebook groups aimed at makers. Gravitate to where your people are!
Check our video to get a few more tips on how to do business networking
Step 3: Make the initial contact.
This is the part of business networking where a lot of people freeze up. Don’t worry. I’ve got some tips to make it easier for you.
If you’re attending an event, whether in-person or virtual, here are some steps to make sure you nail the networking part:
Before the event
- There will likely be an attendee list, or at the very least, a list of speakers and workshop leaders. Peruse these lists and take note of the people you want to talk to.
- Beforehand, connect with them on LinkedIn or email them to introduce yourself. In your message, tell them what you appreciate about their work and let them know you’d like to connect with them during the conference. Ask them when they’ll have some free time.
- Even better, if you have a mutual connection, ask for an introduction either before or during the event.
- If you tend to get nervous, prepare a list of talking points. If you’re trying to connect with someone who will be presenting at the event, pay close attention to their talk and take note of points you’d like to ask them about later. Maybe it’s a fascinating research study they conducted, or perhaps it’s an opinion they hold about an industry trend. That way, you won’t be struggling to find words when you meet them.
During the event
- If you and your new contact decided on a place and time to meet, be punctual!
- Wait until your new contact has some free time. If they’re about to take the stage or in the middle of a conversation, it’s not a good time to introduce yourself.
- Don’t neglect spontaneous connections! Chat with people you don’t know, even if they weren’t on your list. You never know what valuable connection you might make.
- For every new person you meet during networking, find out how you can help them. This may seem counterintuitive, as you’re probably networking because there’s something you need—but remember, if networking is about relationships, it’s also about giving, not just taking.
For example, let’s say you’re trying to land a new client for your consulting business. It’s not effective to walk up to them and tell them how amazing your services are; you haven’t even gotten to know them yet! Find out what they struggle with, what problems they’re trying to solve. Then, and only then, are you going to be able to make them an offer later that they’ll say yes to.
After the event: Always follow up.
After that initial contact, follow up with them within a few days. The sooner, the better. If you wait any longer than a few days, you risk them forgetting who you are. Here’s what you can include in your follow-up message:
- Remind them of who you are. Introduce yourself again with a short description of what you do. Bring up a topic that you two talked about at the event or something else that will help them remember you. They may have met a lot of people at that one event, so don’t expect them to remember everything.
- Reiterate your shared interests and or goals.
- If appropriate, ask them if they’d like to meet for coffee later or invite them to another social business event.
Step 4: Nurture the relationship and build trust.
In this digital age, it can be tough to nurture an in-person relationship with a new contact. That’s why it’s a good idea to connect with them online through LinkedIn or your business Facebook or Instagram accounts. You can even ask them to subscribe to your email list. It may be better, though, to occasionally send them a personalized email with valuable info, rather than adding them to a mass marketing email list. That way, you can stay top of mind for your new contact and build trust.
Most of all, go out of your way to help them, too. According to a 2017 LinkedIn global survey, even though the majority (79%) of professionals agree that networking is essential to career advancement, only 48% keep in touch with contacts when their career is going well.
You don’t like it when a friend only comes to you when they need something, right? Find ways to stay in touch with your network for no reason other than to be friendly, and if you can, connect them with opportunities.
For example, clients often ask me if I know other freelance writers who can contribute to their publications. And when that happens, my efforts to connect with talented writers pay off in three ways: I get to help my clients find quality writers, support fellow freelancers, and stay in touch with like-minded professionals. And the next time a freelancer in my network has a client looking for a writer, guess who they’re going to ask? That’s a networking win for all!
Step 5: Close the deal.
There’s no magic number for how many interactions you should have with someone before making a request. Even in the sales world, this number is debatable. Many claim it takes about eight “touch points” or contacts with a person before you make a sale. This seems to be confirmed at least by RAIN Group, which surveyed 489 sellers and found an average of eight touch points were needed with a new prospect to get an initial meeting or other conversion.
Use your judgment to determine when you’ve built up enough trust with someone in your network to go in for the big ask, whether that be a proposal to work with them or a request for feedback on a project.
5 More Tips on How to Do Business Networking Right
1. Ask follow-up questions.
Want to win someone over? Ask them follow-up questions, which differ from other questions in that they request that the person elaborate on something they just mentioned. A 2017 Harvard University study found that people who ask follow-up questions are seen as more likable by their conversation partner, both in-person and online.
2. Think beyond the traditional networking event.
You don’t have to throw on a suit, slap on a nametag, and walk into a convention center to do business networking. Be on the lookout for less-traditional ways to meet people in your target network.
In the early days of my freelance career, I was driving around the San Francisco Bay Area and pulled over to look at a table of free items in someone’s front yard. I ended up striking up a conversation with the homeowner, who turned out to be the cofounder of a creative agency. She gave me her business card, and a couple of months later, I was listed on her agency’s website as one of its freelance writers! All because of a chance encounter that wasn’t intended to be a networking opportunity.
In this day and age, when so many are working from home and getting creative with online events, virtual networking is on the rise. LinkedIn is a powerful tool for doing this, which we’ll talk about in the next tip.
3. Revamp your LinkedIn profile.
For years, I neglected LinkedIn because I thought it was a waste of time. But over the past year, I decided to revamp my profile, fill it with keywords and relevant examples of my work, and start connecting with people within my industry. And guess what? I’ve never before had so many potential clients reaching out to me after finding me on LinkedIn.
And I’m not the only one. In the 2017 LinkedIn survey mentioned earlier, 35% of users said that a conversation started on the platform led to a new opportunity, including business deals.
4. Make time for face time.
No, I don’t mean Apple’s video app. While in 2020, we’re all used to video calls instead of in-person hangouts, there’s good reason to make time for face-to-face meetings (when it’s safe to do so). A 2010 study published in Computers in Human Behavior had participants chat with a partner two times: face-to-face and over the computer. In the end, participants saw their partner as less self-centered when communicating face-to-face versus over the computer.
5. Be human.
Yes, this is business networking, but that doesn’t mean you have to be all business all the time. For example, if you know your new contact just had a baby, congratulate them! If you know they’re going through a rough time because of the pandemic, reach out with encouraging words. Be human. They’ll know you care about them as a person rather than just seeing them as someone who can advance your career. That goes a long way in building trust.
Try a New View of Networking
As you can see, networking is much more than handing out business cards and hoping for the best. Try applying this five-step process to your own life. Now that you know how to do business networking the right way, who knows what new partnership, job, or mentorship opportunity awaits you?