It’s no surprise, particularly given the current economic climate, that business people are loath to leave their desks and feel their time is better spent with their heads down, getting on with the job at hand. But networking is vital in order to raise your individual and business profile. Be this among influencers and potential consumers, to source new project opportunities, strengthen relationships with existing stakeholders, or to meet potential new employees.
So where to start?
Before you start any type of networking you need to decide what your objective is and how it ties in with your personal and business goals. Collecting hundreds of business cards and thousands of virtual contacts is useless if it does not result in mutually beneficial business relationships. Do you want to learn from others? Get new clients? More sales? Once you have decided on this, consider networking both on and offline. The interactive elements of online networking bring business women together virtually – much the same as a networking event or cocktail party. You can chat with others, share ideas, ask for advice, source suppliers and potential new customers - the only thing missing is the canapés!
The following tips are structured so you can start simply and move up the three different levels of ‘networking panache’ if you wish.
Level One: Build your profile on the big networks
· Join / start networking via one or two large business or social networks you are already a member of. Linkedin and Twitter are probably the hottest places to be for business networking at the moment.
· Make sure your profile is well filled out and a good reflection of your expertise.
· Search for people you know and link / befriend / follow them.
· Join groups which are linked to your field and observe how your peers network online.
· Post links to articles and other useful information – on your profile or the groups you have joined.
· TIME: After initial set up – try allocating 20 minutes a day or at least an hour per week. Every few weeks, take a stock-check on how far the activity contributed to your objectives, and adjust the time you spend accordingly. For example – if it has led to one percent of sales, you should not be spending twenty percent of your time on it.
Level Two: Join with like minds
Identify and join one or two specialist online business networks – like everywoman for women in business or female entrepreneurs and perhaps one for your industry if you are particularly specialised.
· Participate in discussions, ask and answer questions, help others – turn on email notifications, so that when a new post is added to a discussion you know about it. Don’t go around posting the same links / advice in multiple places and ignoring the discussions going on – this will just annoy people – especially if they are also members of the same places.
· Be ruthless about where you participate – if no-one ever answers you, find somewhere else to join.
· TIME: Try allocating 30 minutes a day. Again, determine the return you are getting for your time and allocate further time accordingly.
Level Three: Create and measure
· Write a blog where you can direct all your online contacts to your expertise – be sure to include your contact details and make clear you are keen to connect. Link to your blog from all your profiles on business and social networks – some automatically pick up your new posts so all your contacts can see them.
· If you don’t want to write a blog create an online portfolio or website that showcases your work. Case studies and/ or client testimonials will generate confidence in you. Again – wherever appropriate, link to it wherever you are active online.
· Measure – record every useful contact you make and where you made it – and the estimated value to you or your business. This exercise will help you to realise what type of networking activity is most valuable and where best to focus your time.
· TIME: You will need between 30 minutes to an hour plus per day.
Final Online Tip: There is a TIME specified for each – decide how long you want to spend and try putting calendar reminders in to remind you when to start and stop networking. Online networking can be addictive!
Level One: Leverage your existing contacts
· Listen to your friends, family, and acquaintances. Drop your business into the conversation – see if they respond with anything of interest. Be sure to follow up on any contacts.
Level Two: Attend events
· Identify what is the best type of event for you – trade show, conference, seminar. If you can, attend different types of events so you get a feel for how to interact effectively in different settings.
Get business cards printed. There will be lots of places locally or online to do this. If you want cards with a bit of an edge you could try moo minicards
– you can use photos from your flickr account or choose from a range of designs.
· Make sure you log all the contacts you make and follow up. That way you will start to be able to see the effectiveness of your networking. You can start to see patterns in which type of contact is better for you and your business, and make special efforts in the direction of these people in future.
Level Three: Create your own networking opportunities
· Network wherever you are: There are all sorts of ways to make connections – be open to them all and always have a business card handy in your handbag.
· Next time you’re on the phone to a supplier or other business contact, ask them for advice on the supply of something else, just to get their opinion. People like to be asked for advice and this can help strengthen your relationship and lead to new contacts.
· Hold your own business networking event – invite business people you know and tell them to bring others they trust.
· Start your own local networking group. Use your business network to get started; put up cards in windows, get your local business link to advertise your meetings, post the meetings online so others in your area can find them.