Offline networking for business growth

The aims of networking

Networking is one of those buzz words that seems to be in everyone’s mouth lately. Business networking groups are springing up everywhere, and networking has become a fixture in today’s business world. But what exactly do we mean by the term networking?

First, networking serves to build relationships, support networks and trust. This is important because people buy from people. In the process, people, ideas and knowledge are connected, generating new ideas and opportunities.

Second, by networking you are making yourself visible to potential clients and your target markets. Consider networking as word-of-mouth marketing, which costs little or nothing and is still the most powerful way for most small business to generate revenue.

My personal experience is that I have received paid work through connections made on LinkedIn, Xing and Facebook, and enquiries through Twitter. So I definitely consider the time spent networking a worthwhile investment in my business.

Online versus offline

You may say, ‘Oh, I’m already active on several social media networks and I network all the time’. Sure, online networking is great and essential, but it is not a substitute for face-to-face networking and not sufficient if you do nothing else. In today’s business world, small business owners need to build strong online and offline networks to lay the foundation for their success.

Within versus outside of your industry

When developing your networking strategy (yes, you need a strategy!), you also need to decide whether to engage in networking within your industry or outside your industry. Both have different benefits.

Objectives of offline networking

To start with, define your networking goal. What do you want to achieve? Who do you want to connect with? Typical objectives are to uncover new business opportunities, make more money, raise your profile or build a referral network. You need to be clear in your mind what exactly your goals are, because the worst thing you can do is waste precious time with untargeted networking. This will leave you nothing but frustrated and doubting the entire concept of networking.

Find events

Once you have written down your top networking objectives and at least three groups of people you would like to have in your network (e.g. prospective clients in the advertising industry, colleagues working in your language pair, or potential suppliers you can outsource work to), the next step is to identify suitable networking events.

Your first task is to find out which events your clients attend because that’s where you’ll need to go too. Consult trade magazines in your industries of interest, check with professional associations, and most of all, use the Internet to find local business groups, workshops and networking events.

The best types of networking events for small business owners are:

• Professional associations (e.g. AUSIT, ATA, CIOL) > within your industry • Local Chamber of Commerce events > outside your industry • Business networks > within and outside your industry • Special interest and volunteer groups > outside your industry • Toastmasters (which will significantly enhance your public speaking skills and boost your confidence at the same time) > outside your industry • Charity events, fundraisers and community events > outside your industry • Universities (language and translation departments) > inside your industry

It is advisable to attend a good mix of events within and outside your industry. And it goes without saying that as a solopreneur you should always carry a set of business cards with you wherever you go, as you never know when you’ll meet a potential client or someone who knows your next future client.

Work the room

So you’ve identified a suitable event, packed your business cards and arrived at the venue – now what?

It is important to make a great first impression, as people decide whether or not they like you within a matter of seconds. Although you may prefer to work in your pyjamas all day, make sure you have some proper business attire ready for professional networking events. As a general rule, dress at least ten percent better than the people you want to attract. The last thing you want to do is come across as some haphazard freelancer – you are a business owner and want to be treated as such, so dress and act accordingly!

Being nervous is completely normal, but don’t use it as an excuse to keep getting refills from the buffet or (pretend to) send text messages on your phone all night. That would defeat the entire point of being there, so relax, get in there and work the room. After all, everyone shares the same goal and is there to network.

Try to talk to as many people as possible rather than clinging to those you already know. To do this effectively, smile and make eye contact for a great first impression. Make sure you’ve prepared an effective elevator speech to raise the other person’s interest. When you’re asked ‘what do you do?’, you need to be able to respond with short phrases that will get you noticed and remembered in less than ten seconds. What you say should make the listener want to find out more about you and your business and lead to further questions.

If you’ve identified someone important you really want to speak to, don’t be afraid to ask the host to introduce you to them. Connecting with the right people is your main objective after all.

When engaging with someone, try to listen carefully in order to demonstrate genuine interest and at the same time finding out more about their business. Everyone likes to talk about themselves, so people will remember you for being a good listener and feel flattered that someone is interested in them and their business. And flattery goes a long way as they say.