Do I really need to network?
Right off the bat, I’ll tell you that the answer is YES, networking is an essential part of running a business. You cannot just sit back and wait for customers or clients to come to you. You have to sell yourself.
For those who aren’t particularly gregarious, salesmanship may not come naturally. And networking can seem like a daunting task. However, there’s no getting around it. There are, however, ways to rethink your approach to networking in order to make it less painful.
What Is Networking, Exactly?
So let’s define networking. You may have a picture in your head of what it is, but there’s a good chance that picture is incomplete. Maybe you’re picturing walking up to strangers at parties, introducing yourself with a sales pitch, and handing out business cards like candy.
Or you might be thinking about online networking, building up a network of connections on LinkedIn and other social media sites. Yet, these are just methods of networking (and not necessarily even the best ones).
In reality, networking is not a method, but a way of being, a way of thinking. If you start to think of it this way, networking becomes much less forced. It starts to feel natural, to come out in everyday interactions without seeming salesy.
To become a walking, talking advocate for yourself and your brand, start by thinking about why you network.
We network not just to attract new customers to our business, but to meet people who can help us in other ways. For instance, we can engage with potential employees, business partners, investors, advertising partners, and affiliates.
Quick and Not-so-Dirty Networking Tips
Identify a common interest
When you meet people out in the real world, your first goal should be to find something you have in common. Whether it’s a shared love for the local sports team or an interest in art, you’ll have an easier time talking to people (and identifying their needs) if you figure out what makes them tick.
Utilize multiple channels
Some people prefer to meet face-to-face, and in-person communication has a lot of advantages. However, others like to utilize different channels of communication, such as email, LinkedIn, or even texting, and that’s okay too. To maximize the effectiveness of your networking efforts, use as many communication strategies as you can. You probably have a favourite means of networking too, but it’s a good idea to come out of your comfort zone in order to engage with more people. In fact, it’s much better for you to venture out of your comfort zone than to try to coax others out of theirs.
All in the details
It’s easy to forget about the little things or to think they won’t make a difference. But they do. Pay attention to the small details – everything from your email signature to your business card design. All these elements together are what add up to make you a complete package as a businessperson and a networker.
Ask not what they can do for you…
But think about what you can do for them. That is, don’t go into your networking interactions thinking about what you’re going to get out of them. Yes, you have a goal in mind and are looking for a way to benefit your business, but a self-centered approach just isn’t the way to go. You have to be able to show people what they’re going to get out of it.
So, if you’re looking for a way to get your business featured in a local magazine, don’t approach it like you’re asking for a favour. Instead, demonstrate to the writer or editor that your brand is relevant and interesting to the magazine’s audience. Even better, go a step further and offer something in return. Tell that magazine editor that you’ll keep copies of his publication in the lobby or waiting area of your business. Or offer to do a cooperative promotion – with every new magazine subscription, the subscriber gets a nice discount with you.
Check out organizations related to your industry. If you have a hard time bringing up your business with new people, this can be a good way to get to know them before you start talking shop. Additionally, most members of industry-specific organizations are there to network anyway, so you’ll find lots of people with a give-and-take mindset. They want to see what you can do for them, and they’re normally prepared to offer something in return. Just don’t allow yourself to be steamrolled into any arrangements that aren’t beneficial to your business.
Volunteer your time and resources
Volunteering is a good way to work for a cause you care about while meeting new people and making yourself more visible. You can volunteer as an individual, or you can get your business involved in a cause or event. For instance, big fundraising events like Relay For Life normally have lots of sponsors. You can make a donation in cash or items in exchange for advertising. You can also set up a booth to sell your goods or services, donating a portion of the proceeds to the cause. This will help you make contact with all kinds of new people, some of whom might otherwise not have known you existed.
When it comes to networking, virtually every single interaction can be an opening. Inside your business or out, online or in person, friends or strangers – the key is to make networking more than a technique. You have to make it part of who you are, part of what your business is.