Consider these variables before choosing which networking group to join, Debbie Miles, franchisee with The Athena Network, says
When you’re a small business owner, whether alone or part of a franchise network, people will always suggest networking as a way of attracting new customers.
For some, it can conjure up images of dreary meetings, where people repeat their spiel into your face before giving you a business card and moving on. Yet with a bit of practice and flair, networking can be a way of getting referrals, receiving support and training and even making friends.
With GDPR potentially proving restrictive for some traditional marketing activities, now is a good time to try this softer method of meeting potential clients and collaborators.
The first thing you need to consider when you start out is what kind of networking event to attend. There’s a wealth of choice out there, making it difficult to know where to start.
You should determine your key networking objective. Consider whether the network can broaden your access to your target market. Decide how much time and money you plan to invest in your networking activity.
There are many different variables when it comes to choosing a group and each of these will have significant influence on your ability and desire to attend meetings, their effectiveness and your commitment and enjoyment. Here are a few to consider:
Is the format structured or free form? Will you have the opportunity to speak to everyone in the room or just a few people in an open networking style? Check the format or the agenda so you’re prepared.
Is the ambience pleasant, the venue comfortable and is there food? Is the food of good quality? Where is it located? Will the journey and parking add to the time ‘out of office’?
Will the attendees be the right people you need to meet and appropriate for accessing your target audience? Always bear in mind that it’s not just who’s in the room that counts, as everyone there has a wider network too.
When does the meeting take place? Some are over breakfast, some mid-morning, plus there are lunchtime events and evening ones.
How does this fit with your work, family or leisure commitments? How long is the meeting?
Is there a joining fee, an annual membership fee or a meeting fee? Are refreshments or food included in the price? Perhaps there are opportunities to network free of charge at related meetings.
Is the group mixed gender or solely for men or women? What’s the proportion of men and women at the event and is that likely to affect your confidence?
Visit and check whether the group feels collaborative, supportive or sales focused.
What is your gut feeling? Ask to visit the group and see whether its values fit with yours.
Do you feel a connection with the people there and could you happily work with them?
Number of members
What is the typical size of the group? Would you feel more comfortable in a network where you have more time to get to know each person or where you are more anonymous and can cruise the room?
What opportunities are there to network further afield? Is the network nationwide or just local?
Check to see if there’s any training included in the meetings and look out for opportunities to showcase your business expertise and develop your presentation skills.
What extra support is on offer?
Look at the professionals in the group and see who can help plug the gaps in your own knowledge.
Also, what additional services does the network provide? For example, social media promotional opportunities or workshops.
How fluid is the membership?
Will you get the opportunity to make good connections or do the attendees change each month? Will there be new people visiting each meeting?
Variety of professions
Check out the professions of the attendees before you go to the meeting and consider what opportunities there will be for collaboration or referrals. Is the group diverse in its membership or are there multiple people from the same industry sector?
Once you’ve selected some that fit, give them a try and remember, the more you put in, the more you’ll get out.
Honing your elevator pitch
It’s important to maximise the effectiveness of your networking investment with a good introduction, so think about what you would like to be remembered for. Instead of just trotting out your profession and sounding like every other person who offers that product or service, it’s best to talk about the value you’re adding. Describing potential benefits in terms of emotion, money or time resonate the most, especially with real-life examples of how you’ve helped people.
Talk about the need you’re satisfying and how you’re unique in the way you do it. Look at the situation from your customer’s viewpoint. What makes you different? For example, I expand on my observation that it can be tough for women moving from corporate life to self-employment and/or gaining the confidence to start a career they’re passionate about after focusing on their children.
I help them meet like-minded women with the skills to support them and offer business training, so they can help themselves.
To increase your visibility, consider offering to be a speaker on your area of expertise. Or if you feel your business doesn’t lend itself to doing a talk, think about how you can offer good advice on a related topic. Perhaps you’re a massage therapist who can talk about ways of avoiding stress or a travel agent who can offer an insight into customer service. Once you’ve been networking a few times, you’ll wonder why you were nervous about the first meetings. It’s a journey that’s well worth taking. Good luck.