Since day 1 of life as a business owner, I have relied heavily on networking to market my business. It’s a channel that allows me to promote my services in a targeted way, to tailor my message on the spot and it uses one of the most powerful marketing tools there is – Word Of Mouth.
I welcome the opportunity to leave the confines of my office and head out to different venues where I meet new people, hear new ideas, am challenged and entertained…accompanied by a coffee or lunch or a bacon roll. So I’ve always been a huge advocate of networking as a marketing channel.
Then things changed.
Networking went online and we are now a face in a box on a screen, without access to the subtle nuances of body language that tell us so much about how people are feeling and responding. Our precious elevator pitch can be easily interrupted by dodgy broadband or the appearance of a dog/cat/child/delivery driver. The rest of the room can be distracted by chat messages, emails, or their own appearance. And there’s no bacon roll or coffee.
But there are benefits. We can network further afield, because distance isn’t a barrier. (I was on one networking call with a visitor from America). There is an opportunity to visit other branches of our favoured network groups, or try out totally new groups and networking formats. And we can fit more networking into our week because of the absence of travel time.
But is is worth it?
After 8 weeks (or is it 9? It’s all becoming a blur) of online networking, I have concluded that it presents a brilliant opportunity to grow your contact list, increase your reach, learn new business skills and enjoy the company of others – when it is done properly. Because without the right approach, it becomes a waste of time and a very effective way to kid yourself that you are networking, when in fact you are simply not working.
These are my online networking learnings to date;
- Do it. Initially it is a bit daunting, it’s unfamiliar and everyone worries about what they’re going to look like on screen. But it’s the same for everyone. And once you’ve done it, you realise how easy it is. It’s vital to keep your business name out there – and online networking makes it possible. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
- Be professional. Dress appropriately, brush your hair (we’ve all got enough of it at the moment), tidy your surroundings. Just because you’re not there in person is not an excuse to ditch professionalism. I couldn’t do a Zoom call without shoes on, even though no-one can see, but it puts me in a business frame of mind.
- Be precise. It’s always been important to be specific about who you want introductions to, but now is the time to be more precise than ever. At recent meetings I have been asking for contacts in the food and wine trade and I have received far more leads than normal. My theory is that people find it harder to concentrate on on-screen pitches, so if you give them a clear and concise request, they will remember it more easily.
- Plan. Know how long you’ve got for your pitch, plan what you’re going to say, have a run-through. Winging your minute in person is (generally) painful to watch…it’s even worse on screen.
- Pay attention. Ignore the chat button while someone is talking. If you are sending, reading or replying to chat, you aren’t listening. Put your phone and tablet away so you aren’t distracted by emails.
- Farm, don’t hunt*. This applies to online and offline networking. It works when you are in it to help others, to grow your contacts, cultivate relationships and learn. If you go in to networking with the hard sell and a selfish attitude, you’re missing the point.
- Follow up. Organise 1-2-1s with people who you can help, learn from or collaborate with. But be as considered as you would be IRL. Make the meetings structured and professional. And beware of trying to fit too many in to a day.
- Be brave. Is there a group that you’ve considered but not tried? Now’s the time.
- Be memorable. Use a personalised background if possible – there are plenty of designers who will create one for you. Without a business card exchange you need to get your details out there – and a branded background is ideal.
- Be yourself. Always. Everywhere. Online and offline.
My conclusion? If it’s done properly, online networking is an easy, cost-effective, accessible marketing channel that will help you to promote your business and build your contacts when other marketing avenues are closed.
So grab that hairbrush, tidy the desk and get online. And while you’re here, if you know anyone in the wine and food trade, I’d love to be introduced!
*Dr. Ivan Misner