Attending events and networking with others isn’t just fun, it can also open up a lot of doors for you. Connecting with fellow retailers and vendors for example, can pave the way for referrals, business partnerships, and learning experiences. Networking with thought leaders and members of the media on the other hand, can generate buzz and bring in more exposure for your business.
So whether you’re attending a huge conference like Retail’s BIG Show, or a more intimate (but equally awesome) gathering like Vend’s Block Party in Melbourne, it’s essential that you put your best foot forward and find ways to make the most out of the experience.
Here’s some advice to help you do just that:
Find the right networking event
Kicking butt in a networking event requires that you find one that best fits your goals, budget, and comfort level. Take the time look up functions in your industry and do thorough research to determine which one’s the best for your business. You can do the following:
Ask your own network – It’s always best to get recommendations from people you know and trust when vetting a networking event. Turn to your entrepreneur friends or any retail professionals in your network and ask them about any events they previously attended. What were the things they learned? Who they did they meet? Would they recommend that you attend the event? Asking these questions should help you decide which functions are worth the investment.
Check the groups or organizations you belong to – If you belong to any retail or other industry-relevant groups, check if they’re hosting events you might be interested in. The National Retail Federation for instance, has its famous BIG show, but it also hosts smaller, more specialized events, such as the Retail Technology Leadership Summit, the Online Merchandising Workshop, and more.
Aside from looking at retail groups, check the calendars of any small business organizations or government entities. For example, the Small Business Administration is holding a series of events called National Small Business Week, which takes place in May in various cities, including San Francisco, Kansas, Boston, and Washington DC.
Run a search on Eventbrite or Meetup.com – You can also take your event search online. Head to sites like Eventbrite and Meetup, type in your keywords and the sites will serve up relevant events in your area.
Think “help-working” not just networking
You already know the basics of networking. Smile. Ask questions. Don’t be self-absorbed. These are all solid tips, and they can be effective when you want to make a good first impression, but establishing real connections—ones that can actually get you new business, knowledge, and friends—takes a little bit more than a smile.
The key to establishing lasting and fruitful relationships is being helpful. Be helpful whenever you can, even if you don’t think the person can give you anything in return. That may sound trite, but it works.
Entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan said this is one of the reasons behind her business’ success. In this insightful post, she shares that 2013, “despite the gloom of a continuing U.S. economic crisis, ongoing political crises, and hideous weather events” was her best business year ever.
When she analyzed the reasons behind her business’ success, she found that most of her new business came from referrals and recommendations from fairly junior contacts—people she helped out not because they can offer her something in return, but “just because”.
“I’ve always taken the position that I’ll help anyone I can, without question, without regard for whether the person could ever help me in return,” she wrote.
Strive to have the same disposition when networking with others. While it’s important to head to an event with a purpose, don’t get into it with such a calculating strategy of only talking to people whom you can get something out of.
As Margaret put it, “Calculating your way to the top doesn’t work–in part because nobody can see far enough ahead but also because such calculation shows and doesn’t attract givers, followers, or supporters.”
So attend events with a giving mindset and help out whenever you can. Share advice openly. Give them a referral if you think they can deliver. Make introductions. Also take note that helping out doesn’t always take place on the event floor. In fact, most of it will happen after the function has taken place.
Which brings us to our next point…
People always say “I’ll call you” or “I’ll be in touch,” but not everyone follows through. After the event, make it a point to touch base with your contacts with a quick email or phone call. No selling, no agenda, just a quick “It was great meeting you!” Be sure to personalize your messages by bringing up the specific things you talked about during the event, or offering a customized tip that they can apply in their business.
It’s a great way to make an impression considering a lot of people don’t always follow through with their “I’ll be in touch” promises, and the people who do follow-up, only do so to send a sales pitch.
Take the conversation online
Posting about the event online? Don’t forget to include its official hashtag in all your updates. Event-specific hashtags are super handy because they allow you to connect with like-minded attendees and you can use them to find relevant conversations to participate in.
This is another effective way to follow-up on your contacts. Send tweets to the individuals you met and let them know how much of a great time you had. If you took photos, post them online and tag or @mention people who are in them.
Stay on their radar
Can you still make an impression on your contacts weeks or even months after the event? Sure you can. Stay updated and top of mind with the people you met by putting them in special Twitter lists so you can see what they’re tweeting and jump in whenever you have something to say.
Another good way to stay on people’s radars is to set up Google Alerts on your key contacts so you can keep tabs on them. That way, if they are quoted in the media or publish a press release you can swoop in to send a note.
Networking isn’t just about delivering elevator speeches and collecting swag. It’s about establishing real connections with others and harnessing those relationships for the good of your business and theirs. So prep your inner social butterfly, head out there and put these tips into action!
Do you attend networking events? Tell us all about them in the comments below.
About Francesca Nicasio
Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.