The following excerpt is from Ivan Misner, Ph.D. and Brian Hilliard’s book Networking Like a Pro. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound In most major cities, you can attend eight to 10 networking events on any given day. Assuming that your minimum time investment is two hours per event (this takes into account getting in the car, driving downtown, parking and participating in the event), it's easy to see how this networking thing can be a full-time job.
So how can a time-strapped businessperson figure out which networking events she should attend and which she should let go by the wayside? By developing a networking strategy.
Here are three easy -- but essential -- questions you need to answer to create a plan that will work for you.
1. Who are my best prospects?
The first question is another way of asking, "What is my target market?" You'd be surprised at the number of business professionals who can't define their target market. Most of them either reply, "Everyone!" or offer some vague description that sounds good at first but offers little in the way of useful specifics. This is why business professionals so often find themselves running all over town, trying to attend every networking event that comes down the pike. Since they don't have time to follow up immediately with most of the people they meet, they often don't get as much business as they'd like; then they throw their hands in the air and wail, "Networking doesn't work for me!"
It can! It's just a matter of developing a strategy that puts you into contact with the right people. If you're not sure who those folks might be for your business, take a look at your list of clients. What industries were they in? How long had they been in business? Were your clients even businesses to begin with, or have you worked mostly with consumers?
Each target market will have a strategy that requires you to network in different places. Once you've put together a profile of the people you've worked with in the past, pick up the phone and run it by a few trusted friends and colleagues. People who are close to you often have insights into patterns that you tend to overlook because you're busy with day-to-day operations, and this is a great time to get their input on who they feel would be a good fit for your business. Once you get that nailed down, go on to the next question.
2. Where can I meet my best prospects?
Networking doesn't mean just hopping into the car and attending the next chamber of commerce event. Yes, the chamber and other business associations are excellent means of finding and meeting new prospects. But, as your business evolves and you begin targeting specific niche markets, there are other venues and opportunities that fall outside the typical networking event -- and that's the kind of out-of-the-box thinking we're going to discuss here.
Generally speaking, if you're trying to meet more small-business owners, you should spend time at the chamber of commerce, your local business association or a referral group. But, if you're looking to meet representatives from bigger corporations in your area, we recommend service clubs, nonprofit groups and volunteer work. Another good way to come into contact with those folks is through homeowners' associations, most of which meet at least once a month. If your business is geared more toward consumers, then getting involved with your kids' events -- Little League, Boy Scouts and so forth -- is another good way to meet the right people.
For the management consultant who wants to meet people in million-dollar companies, we'd recommend networking at service clubs or nonprofit groups. Why? Because the directors and CEOs of large companies are less likely to be at your local chamber's after-hours event than in a civic organization like Habitat for Humanity, Kiwanis International or Rotary International. We also recommend trying to get on your service club's board or leadership team; that way you're interfacing with more of the movers and shakers of your community.
3. Whom, exactly, do I want to meet?
Even if you can't name the people you want to meet, the better you can describe them, the greater the chance that you'll get to meet your ideal contact. The secret ingredient in this principle is specificity. The way to meet the unknown contact is to be as specific as possible without closing out all possible variations. You can do this by starting your question like this: "Whom do you know who...?" You complete the sentence with specifics: "Whom do you know who is a new parent?" "Whom do you know who belongs to an organization that builds houses for the homeless?" By asking for a specific kind of contact, you focus the other person's attention on details that are more likely to remind him of a specific person than if you asked, "Do you know anyone who needs my services?"
Now, before we paint too rosy a picture of meeting the right people, let's be clear on one thing: When you're networking, it's less of "I'm going to this networking event to find the right prospect" and more of "I'm networking to develop mutually beneficial relationships with people in the local business community."
One of the great things about the growth of referral marketing is that there are so many more opportunities available today than there were even five years ago. Unfortunately, there's also a downside: You may quickly feel overwhelmed by the vast number of events in your town and by the whirlwind of networking that seems to characterize most of them. However, when you answer these three key questions and begin creating a strategy, you'll find that the networking world truly is your oyster.