Over a two-part series, Stephen Walker considers the benefits of business networking, the different types on offer and how to test and measure your networking return on investment. In this article, he explains why we need to network, how to choose a network, and whether it should be done online or face-to-face.
Networking is part of marketing and not a sales function. It is about getting to know people and not about pushing your services. It is also a strange concept: people communicating with a view to sharing some information. It can seem an unfocused activity as nothing gets done.
Yet the sharing of information is what gets done. People learn about you, what you can do for people and what sort of person you appear to be. So is networking just a social, fun event? Poor networking events attended by bad networkers can be trivial. Strangely these types of events can be 'fun' and those bad networkers are simply happy they are networking. However, there is work in networking and it is a demanding task to do adequately.
It is better to prepare and plan your networking and the place to start is to determine the right networks for you. There are a handful of physical networking events within 30 minutes drive of me every weekday. There are more online networks than I could ever possibly count. I know of dozens in my speciality alone. There many things to consider when choosing a suitable networking opportunity. These two articles provide a few pointers.
What is networking for?
Networking is for building relationships, not for selling. It is a marketing, not a sales, function. You will find clusters of the professionals at networking events talking to other professionals in the same speciality. Accountants talk to accountants, solicitors to solicitors and so on. There is a need to provide continuing professional development and these round table chats can be a part of that.
Why does the photocopier salesman want to develop a relationship with an office manager? The crude answer is to sell. The office manager knows that and people can be surprisingly deaf! But what if the salesman shares some information that saves the manager some money? Maybe saves on toner by shaking the cartridge? The manager has gained and should feel well disposed towards the salesman. This doesn’t guarantee a sale but it is a step along the way, a sale comes from a lot of small steps.
Anyone who has worked in a job for ten years has tremendous expert knowledge. Unfortunately this knowledge is invisible to the person so they may not see the value in sharing it. You can see this networking can quickly move people well beyond their comfort zone.
Real or virtual networking?
There is less difference between online and physical networking than you might think when compared to the huge variation in physical networking. It is harder to sell online as you are just a click away from being disconnected. Most people are not so rude to disconnect in a face to face meeting – that is most people. It is true that different networks have different characteristics and suit different messages and purposes.
Real or virtual is just another of those choices.
Choosing a network
I’ve chosen a simple 2x2 matrix but you could add a third dimension - an axis displaying specialisation. There are networks that have a tight focus on everything from property development to spreadsheets to cupcakes!
If you are looking to learn or share your knowledge with your peers then a specialist network is a good choice. There is some great advice in these networks, and sadly, a lot of fluff at times. It is all down to the network manager to keep a taut regime without being oppressive – people need space to be creative and air innovative ideas. The following comments about size and structure apply when you have chosen your specialist position.
The matrix shows a few of many possible networks and how they fit into the networking brand position space. I talk through some of the networks below and use the names for identification. The names of each network are fictitious and any similarity to any existing network is purely coincidental.
Highly structured, large networking groups have their place. EF Net brings together large groups and puts them through a rigid agenda. Consequently there is little time in the meeting to learn much about the individuals beyond their elevator pitch. At the extreme this works for businesses with an easy to understand product or service. Most people would understand what a florist might do, whereas a wedding floral decoration service might need more explanation. Highly structured, large groups are not good for understanding complex, or unusual, product offerings. They do work well for easy to understand everyday products.
GH Net is an example of a large, loosely structured networking group. You enter a room, physical or virtual, and just talk to people. This can be comfortable if you are ok just chatting to people but aren’t an experienced networker. People can be shy to stand up in front of 40 people and deliver an elevator pitch. It can lead to relationships being built, but it also allows people to hide in the corners and leave quickly, thinking they have done networking and it doesn’t work.
Small, loosely structured groups can work like a group of non-executive directors. If there is a regular attendance the meeting becomes an exclusive club and the members develop a deep understanding of each other.
This networking model, AB Net, has to be sensitively managed to keep it fresh and interesting, not cliquey but open to external views. The tightly controlled membership means that the problems that arise from itinerant “buy my stuff” networkers are kept away.
CD Net, on the other hand, is a small, fairly well-structured group. People know what to expect when they network. There is enough time to get to know and build relationships with the people there. This can be a good means of sharing expertise and explaining your complex and unusual offering. This may not work well for the florist and the like, as the smaller number of opportunities limits potential sales. The benefit of building relationships, sharing expertise and explaining what you can do comes when the people in the room become your advocates. They understand and believe in you and will connect you with opportunities that arise.
Then there are all the other options filling every niche in the networking universe. You should explore a few networks and see what suits you and your offering.
You do need to acquire networking skills to make the best of the opportunity, which we will explore in greater detail in part two of this series.
Stephen Walker is co-founder of Motivation Matters, set up in 2004 to develop organisation behaviour to drive greater performance. He has worked for notable organisations such as Corning, De La Rue and Buhler and has been hired to help Philips, Lloyds TSB and a raft of others. He is also a conference speaker and a published author of many articles, with a book soon to be in print, Stephen delivers workshops across the country, and believes it is all about “making people more effective by more appropriate managerial behaviour”. You can follow Stephen on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Blog