Or: To Network is to Give
Networking is hard. You sign up for a conference where you don’t know anybody, you spend all your time scoping out people who might be interested in what you’re selling, and you hand out 40 business cards. Then weeks down the line, still nobody has contacted you back.
There is a better way to network. It starts with changing your mindset.
I would like my definition of networking to reflect the benefits that each person receive because of their presence within the network. The strength of an individual’s networking should pass on value to the others within the network, not just the individual at the center. This definition of networking reflects the mutual support that should be present within a social network.
How do people support each other within a network? That depends first on what kind of industry you are working in. For example, let’s imagine a social enterprise that provides a restaurant service while also working on developing employment skills for new immigrants. The first point of mutual support could be to serve as a venue that is easily booked for networked individuals. In this example, that would support the viability of the social enterprise, while providing additional opportunities for the staff to develop serving skills in a closed environment. In return, the other members of the network have a known space for events.
This extends beyond the immediate network when you consider this new definition of networking. Because each of the people now also have the knowledge of the location for great hosting, each person in the network is more valuable to their own personal networks. For example, someone who knows the manager at the restaurant they might mention to a new immigrant that there is a great training program there, or join a company event organizing committee because they know of a venue that could hold them.
Because of this network of giving, the benefit to the network extends much further. Beyond just knowing where a good venue exists but also extends to the food, the employees, even potentially to the supply network that the restaurant uses if they’re on especially good terms. The benefits of the network likely go beyond what would typically be expected of each person within the network.
Through giving, your network will grow and prosper.
In this vision of networking, there must still be a point of initial contact to start to build that relationship into the network of giving. This is where the stereotypical networking event comes in. This should be an event where people who are interested in similar values that your enterprise is founded on.
Researching what will be spoken about during an event is important to see the kinds of people that are likely to attend. Use your interests or organizational values as a starting point to see if there might be a potential overlap with your existing network, or with your desired network. Beyond the presented topics, see if you can find out some names of people who will be attending. This can help you research some of their background or other interests, so you can ask them questions that will spark a conversation instead of repeating a tired elevator pitch.
As you talk with them, there is likely going to be a point where either you ask them for some advice or assistance or they ask you if you might know someone who can help them with a problem they’re working through. This is the prime opportunity to introduce them to your network (or to be introduced into theirs,) and establish the beginnings of a helping relationship. This is where you could also ask if you could set up a second meeting to get more information on the problem or to introduce them to someone else in your network.
Even if you don’t agree to set up another meeting time, make sure to follow up with any new contacts that you might have met at a networking event. If they think of you outside of the event, there is a much higher chance that they will eventually join your network in some way.
You will need to gauge how soon to contact them based on how the conversation went. If you have any questions about what they do or something they had mentioned, ask in the follow up communication. This will signal to them that you were interested in them and were actively listening. Make sure to send the follow up message within a couple days of the event, so they still remember you when they receive it.
Networking events are still useful opportunities to meet people outside of your current network.
As you grow your network, you will realize that it’s not possible to maintain active relationships with everyone that you have met. This is where it is important to prioritize people who have been helpful as well as those with their own established networks. Find the time for those who align well with your vision and values, as well as those you’ve been able to help effectively and have assisted you when needed help.
Beyond the circle of individuals that you keep close contact, you should make the effort to check in with them periodically to keep engaged with them. If you have an opportunity during one of those check ins to help with a short term or immediate need then do so, especially if it is a simple solution such as connecting them with another member of your extended network. Doing so keeps the network you’ve established strong.
Age is also a factor when growing a network. Younger networks are easier to access because they haven’t established a strong close network, and likely haven’t started prioritizing more senior members of their networks yet. The same goes for professionals who have shifted career track or jumped into an entirely different field, as they often need to rebuild their networks within their new field.
Do you have a definition for your networking? Please explain yours in the comments below. If you want to ask me a question about networking or marketing, you can find me on Twitter.
Whatever your methods as you network, always remember to keep it simple.