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As a small business, we are constantly attending in-person professional business networking events.  More often than not, we are the ones facilitating the event!  Over the past few years we have seen the process of how professionals network evolve, and wanted to share some tips with you.  On Tuesday February 1st we are helping run the New Jersey Social Media Diner networking event at Mastoris Diner in Bordentown New Jersey, so it’s a refresher for us as well!

Come prepared.

There is no use going to a business networking event if you aren’t ready!

  1. Think about the types of questions people get asked at networking events and be prepared to answer them. “What do you do?” is one of the most common ice breakers, be prepared with a creative answer. Better yet, come up with a few unique questions of your own to ask. A quick glance at a person’s business card can tell you what they do for a living, a thought-provoking question will start to build a real conversation. It will jolt people out of giving routine answers and make you more memorable in the process. Examples of interesting questions could be “what would your perfect client referral look like?”, “what type of client are you trying to break in with?”, or “if money were no object, what would your ideal job be?”
  2. Bring up to date business cards! Your business card is the only thing about you that will go back to work with the contacts you meet. Visit your local printshop, Vistaprint, or Overnight Prints for cards, they aren’t expensive and make a lasting impression. Even professionals in-transition should have cards made up with their contact information.
  3. Browse through the attendee list if possible. A lot of today’s networking events are orchestrated online and allow you to see the names of other attendees. Do a little research (use LinkedIn!) to see if there is anyone there you want to connect with and be sure to reach out to them at the event. If you have chosen the right networking event, you will be meeting numerous people that either have interest in your business, or that you are interested in. An offset printing company may not make the best connections at a networking event filled with medical technology professionals – unless of course you have a product offering for their industry.

Make a positive first impression.

You have EXACTLY one opportunity to make a great first impression. This doesn’t seem like a point worth mentioning, but having probably 100 business networking events under our belt, we can say from experience that it needs to be talked about. Be sure to wear clean and pressed clothing appropriate for your line of work. Even plumbers and landscapers can wear khakis and a polo shirt! If you are not a suit-and-tie or skirt-and-heels kind of person, wear something that you would wear meeting a client for the first time. Don’t carry about a laptop bag or gym bag around, and ladies, please don’t carry around an oversized purse you have to pull out all your kids toys from to get a business card out. Your first impression needs to convey you as a neat, organized, and professional business person.

Know what you have to offer and be able to present it quickly.

Develop a one sentence introduction as well as a presentation of about four sentences. The introduction explains what you do and for whom. For example, “I work with companies to help with their technology needs to reach their customers on networking platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.” This introduction serves as an ice breaker and helps determine if the person you are talking to is interested in your line of business. If they are, they will usually respond with asking a question about it. Be prepared with your follow up sentences, customized if possible so the person you are chatting with can relate. You must be truthful, genuine and authentic. No bluffing or padding out your experience, you never know who the person you are talking to is connected with!

Approaching others at the networking event.

It’s not easy to go up to complete strangers and start up a conversation, but it is the entire reason you are at the event. Just remember, everyone is in the same situation as you, they are here to network and expect and hope you will do just that. Wallflowers do not make connections!

  1. Make the first move. Introduce yourself to others rather than waiting for others to come to you – this allows you to choose who you talk to
  2. To ease yourself in try heading for the one person you know and say hello. Ask them if there is anyone they can introduce you to.
  3. Look for the wallflowers and talk to them. Think how pleased they will be to talk to you, and you can see about ‘teaming up’ to make talking to others easier on your both.
  4. Read body language. If there are a few people standing side by side then this means they are open to being approached, but a group standing in a closed circle is a bit harder to break in to. Save them for later.

Don’t hand out business cards to everyone.

This goes against every old-school networker out there. It’s not a numbers game, giving out more cards does not increase your chance of gaining a client. After talking to someone and seeing if there is an interest in each other’s business, then offer a card. Of course if you are asked for a card, ask for one in return! We have binders full of business cards for products and services that we will never need, and can’t refer out to someone else. It’s a fact of life, not everyone is a potential customer or source of referrals. Everyone is worth a few minutes of your time to chat though, so be polite.

Breaking from the pack.

You’ve introduced yourself and you’ve had a good conversation with someone but want to meet others, or the connection just isn’t clicking and it’s time to move on. It’s not personal, just effective business networking. Tactful ways to move on are:

  1. Introducing them to someone else asking them to introduce you to someone else you know
  2. Suggesting you refill your drink or grab a bite to eat
  3. Saying ‘we only have a limited time today to network, so I will let you continue networking’
  4. Saying ‘thank you for your time…do you have a business card so we can connect later and continue our conversation?’
  5. If all else fails just say ‘shall we go and introduce ourselves to some more people now?’

Follow up after the event.

Networking events are useless without followup. Most people fail to connect after the event, yet the follow-up is the most important aspect of networking. Within two days after the event, you should reach out to your new contact via email, or better yet, LinkedIn. Be sure to include information on where you met them, what you talked about, and why you would like to connect. If using LinkedIn, please do not use the default connection message! If the contact you made has the potential to become a good relationship, arrange for coffee or lunch within two weeks of the networking event. This will give you the opportunity to learn more about their business, the challenges they face, and how you could potentially help them. This is NOT a sales call – it is a relationship building meeting.

Thank the organizers.

Organizing a business networking event is a thankless job!  It’s usually a volunteer position and the people involved usually do not have much time to network themselves.  The organizers are most likely know a good deal of the attendees, so by thanking them you stay top-of-mind and open yourself up to more business networking connections!

In-Transition Professionals:

Please do not attend a networking event and openly solicit for a job. If you identify yourself as out of work / in-transition, everyone else understands you are looking for employment. Don’t put anyone on the spot by asking if there are openings at their company, if they would walk your resume in to HR for you, hand out your resume in place of business cards, or complain about how you keep getting interviews but never get hired. Most of us have been in your position, we truly understand how difficult it is. Help them to help you! Let people know what type of referral would be beneficial for them. For example, “I’m looking to make connections with people in the training departments of pharmaceutical or financial institutions” gives people a starting point to dig through their contacts and help you out.

Be prepared to talk about what you have been doing with your time while looking for employment. Talk about the volunteering you are doing that somehow relates to your line of work. In finance? Talk about how you are volunteering at your child’s school and raising money and organizing the class trip. Graphic designer? Chat about how you are donating some time and talent to local non-profits that could not normally afford your services. Better yet, try to network with people that you could do a bit of volunteering for, just be wary of businesses trying to get free services out of you.