In-person networking events are returning as more and more people feel comfortable gathering indoors with larger groups of strangers. To some, networking is easy and fun, but to others, it’s an uncomfortable chore. As someone who has utilized networking to grow my successful public-relations consultancy, here’s a primer on networking and how you can get the most out of these events.
When identifying the kinds of networking events you’ll want to attend, the first place to start is understanding what type of people you’re trying meet. If you’re a residential-insurance professional, you may find potential leads at any event, but if you’re only focused on medical professionals, you’ll want to be more selective about which events you attend.
Once you know the kind of people you are trying to connect with, you’ll need to identify the kinds of events that will provide opportunities to meet these people. One way to do this is by looking at your local industry associations. Sometimes, members get to attend these kinds of events for free or at a discount, but many groups have non-member attendee rates or even offer free attendance your first time so that you can try it out and see how you like it. Another great source to find events are local Chamber of Commerce websites. Some cities also have citywide networking-event calendar websites, which provide details on several events occurring each month.
Next, you need to decide which type of event you’ll enjoy the most. Do you like a formal agenda, or do you prefer to wander around a room on your own starting conversations with strangers?
Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll be able to select the best kind of networking events that will meet your personal preferences and business goals. Here are some of the most common types of networking events.
If you like a formal structure, a great organization to consider is LeTip International, the world's largest privately owned business-leads organization. They have more than 250 chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada and are credited with hundreds of thousands of business referrals per year. Basically, it’s a weekly meeting where a chapter of 20 to 40 people follow a structured meeting format, which is proven to generate business leads as the other members of the group essentially become your sales team or referral source.
Luncheons also tend to force more structure as well. While you’ll still meet new people, the networking portion tends to be more compressed, giving you less time to talk to people before you sit at a table and eat while often listening to a presentation. If you’re sitting with the right people on either side, you may be able to make a great and relevant contact to grow your network. If you get stuck sitting next to people who don’t interest you, it’s essentially lost time. Once the presentation or lunch is over, people tend to leave very quickly, with little networking, as people need to return to work, so it’s important you arrive early to meet new people at these types of events.
If you prefer more schmooze time, breakfast events or happy hours might be best suited to your style. Breakfast events tend to have people wandering the room carrying small plates of breakfast foods or sitting briefly to eat and then getting back to the networking. Some morning events also have some formal component to the event as well. For example, sometimes everyone goes around the room giving their 30-second elevator pitch before resuming the mix and mingle part of the event. While every group is different, there seems to be more salespeople attending breakfast events, rather than the actual business owners.
Happy Hours tend to have almost no structure. While some may have the host speak to the group for a few minutes welcoming everyone or thanking sponsors, most often it’s a full event of mixing and mingling. A lot of people will carry an adult beverage around with them, and sometimes a small plate of appetizers as well. The people who attend these types of events will depend on the host organization putting on the event, but attendees will tend to be more decision makers or small-business owners.
Another networking opportunity would be larger events like an awards event or training presentation where your company buys a full table. In this scenario, the networking usually occurs before the presentation or people are seated. Before you sit down with people you already know, work the room. Look at nametags (if people are wearing them) and walk up to people that you want to meet.
In the end, it’s pretty simple. Pick the type of networking event that you will enjoy and return to events where you liked the people as people — not as sales leads. I built up my own successful business this way, attending on average two happy-hour events a week for several years. The repetition and being viewed as a trusted regular led to several referrals that grew my firm into what it’s become today.
My only warning is that networking is about the long game, not the short sale. The strategy took at least a year, during which I went to the same events month after month, talking to the same people again and again, before I started getting some client referrals. Networking successfully is a strategy that takes an investment of time, but has the opportunity to pay off in dividends when done right.