Forget platitudes and theory. Here's the only advice you'll ever need to make business networking pay off.
If effective business networking is so important, why do so few people see any benefits? The problem starts with expectations.
Most people approach networking as a key driver of sales. ("Networking is like advertising... but networking is free!") While networking can occasionally lead to a sale, if selling is your primary intent you will almost always fail because potential clients instantly recognize that your attempt to "network" is just a poorly veiled sales tactic.
But networking can work when you take the right approach. Let's start by defining what networking really is (I promise it won't be boring).
Here are the four basic principles of business networking:
1. Networking always starts with giving
The ultimate goal of networking is to connect with people who may be able to help you reach a particular goal: A direct sale, a referral, a contact, an endorsement, a job interview, etc. It goes without saying that when you network, you want something.
But you can't ask for what you want--at least not at first, and maybe not ever. Forget about receiving and focus on providing. Your ultimate goal may be to receive, but your short- and medium-term focus must be on giving. That's the only way to establish a real connection and relationship.
Focus only on what you want and you'll be like most other people... and you'll never make valuable connections.
2. No one cares what you need... or how badly you need it
A joint venture with a major player in your industry could transform your company. A write-up in the New York Times could generate the publicity you need to drive significant sales. An endorsement from Guy Kawasaki on his blog might kick-start your consulting business. Or maybe your start-up will soon run out of cash without a desperately needed infusion of capital.
All great reasons for you to connect with people, but no one cares. Nor should they. Your needs are your problem.
Never expect people to respond to networking efforts based on your needs. Everyone has needs. Others may feel your pain but it is in no way their responsibility to help you. People care first about how you can help them. Embrace that premise and you'll go far.
Plus, keep in mind networking is a little like dating. The more desperate or needy you are the less likely you are to connect with someone worthwhile.
3. Good networking is highly targeted
Some people like networking events. I don't. They're too unfocused.
A much better approach is to identify someone you can help, determine whether they might be able to help you, and then approach them on your own terms.
Always select your targets. Then go after them. Don't expect to find them at a networking event.
4. The higher you reach the less you should expect
Say you're trying to network with Guy Kawasaki or Seth Godin or Malcolm Gladwell.
Great--get in a very long line. Half the world is actively trying to network with them. The other half is still looking for their contact information so they can try too.
Effective business networking creates a mutually beneficial relationship, with major emphasis on "mutually." Say you're a writer or expert or thought leader:
- What can Malcolm Gladwell offer you? Plenty: Contacts, endorsements, advice, mentoring, etc.
- What can you offer Malcolm? Nothing. Be realistic. You may believe you have something to offer him but you really don't. (Don't feel bad. I don't either.)
So while you may desperately want or need to, making that worthwhile connection with your dream target will take a very long time because the right to connect is not based on need. You have to earn the right to connect.
Now let's look at the basic steps on how to network effectively so the time you spend networking actually pays off.
Step One: Segment Your Networking Targets
First break down the people you hope to network with into three broad categories:
- Easy: Establishing a connection is unlikely to gain you much but should definitely help them.
- Medium: Establishing a mutually beneficial relationship is fairly straightforward; what you can provide and what they can provide is relatively equal.
- Reach: Establishing a connection with these folks is at the far end of possibility; you have little to offer compared to what they can provide.
We'll use the wedding photography business as an example since it's an industry I know a lot about. In addition to ghostwriting I've been a wedding photographer for years--we've won awards, been published in major magazines, done high profile weddings, etc. (I only mention all that to set the stage for what follows.)
In networking terms, here's how we can segment our targets:
Easy: Local florists, cake shops, carriages, venues, wedding planners, etc. These vendors are delighted when we offer them photos or other "stuff."
What do we get in return? Realistically not much, since couples don't tend to ask their florist for recommendations for wedding photographers. Still, if you like to prioritize, you could put florists and cake shops at the "least potential return" end of the scale and wedding planners and reception venues at the "greatest potential return" end of the scale, since couples do occasionally ask wedding planners and venues for advice about photographers.
Medium: Sought-after venues, respected wedding planners, etc. These folks are, for want of a better way to put it, "at our level" because we tend to serve clients in the same spending demographic.
Venues like the Congressional Country Club, the Boar's Head Inn, The Greenbrier, The Jefferson... they're in our wheelhouse. They appreciate, for example, getting photos from us to use for promotional purposes. The images are great and the connection reflects well on them. We benefit for the same reason.
Plus, they're happy to provide referrals because they know we'll come through for their clients--as we know they will for ours. Work hard on this list (you'll see why in a moment.)
Reach: Our work has appeared in bridal magazines, but we're by no means a go-to source for the top wedding media outlets. We land occasional features, but getting published regularly in, say, The Knot or Martha Stewart Weddings is difficult since thousands of other wedding photographers are dying for the opportunity as well. That's why reach targets are high effort, low odds of return.
Segment your targets the same way. Think of where you currently stand in your industry and market and make lists of Easy, Medium, and Reach targets. Prioritize each segment in terms of potential return.
Then allocate the time you spend to networking each segment:
- Easy: 20%. It doesn't take much time to connect with easy targets. That's a good thing since you're unlikely to receive much in return. But occasionally you might, and you can also feel good about helping other entrepreneurs.
- Medium: 70%. Connecting takes a little more time and the return is definitely worth it. Establishing mutually beneficial connections is what networking is all about, so spend the bulk of your time here.
- Reach: 10%: Go ahead and go after the Malcolm Gladwells of your industry if you feel you must, but don't expect any return. (He's a nice guy but he doesn't need you.) Cultivating a relationship with reach targets takes a long time, so there's no need to hurry.
Keep in mind some of the people in your Reach segment will naturally shift into your Medium segment as your reputation and business grows--and some of your Mediums will naturally slip into the Easy zone. As your business and reputation grows, so will your list of Medium and Easy targets.
Once you've segmented your targets, it's time to make contact.
Step Two: Identify the Best Approach
Here are the three most important words in networking: Provide, provide, provide.
In a few cases you'll ask for what you want, but most of the time you will only provide. (Whether or not you ask depends on how you categorized the target.)
We'll use the wedding example again. When we photograph a wedding our sole focus is to capture beautiful images for our client, but later we can leverage the work we've already done for networking:
Easy: Brides love their bouquets so we work hard to create striking photos. We don't need to, but it's okay to ask for what we want when we reach out to a florist: "We're going to send you images of your awesome bouquet... in return all we ask is that you credit us and provide a link."
No florist ever turns us down because our photos are always better than theirs. The total cost to us is a phone call. Will we receive anything in return besides an inbound link? Probably not, but that's okay. Sometimes being nice is its own reward.
Medium: All wedding planners can use help keeping their portfolios current. We don't ask for anything in return (although occasionally we could); we just offer photos.
Because we're on the same "level," great wedding planners almost always say, "I would love to get images from that wedding... and you guys did such a wonderful job I'll definitely refer my clients to you." When you provide something of value to a connection at your level, most will automatically offer to help you out in return.
If not, cross that person off your list.
Reach: Never ask for anything in return. And make sure what you provide is something they can't easily get themselves.
For example, The Carlyle in New York City doesn't need our photos. While they have used several striking and unusual images, offering anything less would waste their time and ours. We didn't ask for anything in return because contacting Reach targets requires a very delicate touch: Just plant a great seed and leave that seed alone. (Reach targets always water and cultivate their own gardens.)
If you later come up with more great seeds you can plant them too, and in time maybe a relationship may begin to bloom. Maybe.
- Easy: Feel free to ask for something in return. But make sure what you provide has real value.
- Medium: You shouldn't need to ask for something in return so the classy approach is to simply provide something of real value. Consider the response you receive and act accordingly.
- Reach: Never ask for something in return, and make sure what you provide is not only valuable but also unique. Otherwise your attempt at a connection is just one of thousands.
Speaking of value, let's determine what you can and should provide. Fortunately, providing is easier and cheaper than you think.
Step Three: Determine What You Should Provide
A continual focus on "giving" might seem odd or off-putting, but remember: Networking is based on a mutual exchange of value. An exchange requires giving and receiving. By giving first, you set the stage.
What you give doesn't have to cost a lot, even though it's valuable:
Appreciation. Few people receive enough praise, so unsolicited accolades make a memorable impact. (Just like flowers you send a loved one when it's not a special occasion.)
Watch for something a target has accomplished or done well and congratulate them. Keep it simple and to the point, don't ask for anything, don't mention what you do or how they can help you... just say "well done" or "thanks" and make sure your contact information is at the bottom of the email or note.
I guarantee they'll check you out on their own.
Advice. Providing advice must be handled gracefully because unsolicited input can easily sound like a sales pitch: "You may not realize it but email marketing can boost your sales by 20%!"
Instead find a way to give truly helpful advice. A friend runs an ad agency and sent a target a note: "We recently conducted a traffic survey while conducting market research for a client and determined 25,000 vehicles pass his location (and therefore yours) between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. each weekday. Since your sign isn't lit, thousands of potential customers don't see it..." He didn't close with the typical "Call us if we can help you..." line because valuable advice serves as its own calling card.
Assistance. The best tangible assistance is a by-product of something you already do; otherwise it's a sample.
Photographing our couples' wedding cakes is something we always do... and something we can also leverage since bakers appreciate great photos of their work.
Think about what you do internally or for customers and determine how you can leverage those existing efforts to benefit your networking targets. With a little creativity you'll find plenty of possibilities. Just don't stray into the "sample" zone, because then, in effect, you're doing work on spec.
Always leverage what you already do.
Referrals. Making referrals should also be handled gracefully. Don't say, "I'm referring a client to you so I expect you to send work my way in return."
Instead, call to give a heads-up and provide useful information about the referral. For example, I might call a wedding planner we respect and say, "We gave a client your number because we know you do a great job. They want a fairly traditional and slightly understated reception, but their ceremony will be more complicated than usual and getting the details right is really important to them...." The planner benefits in two ways: They get a solid referral and they get time to prepare so they can make a great impression when our client calls.
Think about what potential networking partners need. What will they appreciate? What can you provide that is beneficial? What can you do that actually helps them?
Reach out and provide real value and you will quickly establish positive relationships. But it's also easy to go overboard on making those connections, so let's make sure you don't spend too much time networking.
Step Four: Determine How Much Time You Can Afford to Spend
What's the easy answer to how much time you should spend networking?
The majority of your marketing efforts should focus on direct sales. Networking takes time. You need sales and revenue a lot more than connections that maybe, hopefully, someday will possibly pay off.
Many people fall into the trap of over-networking since networking is like playing the lottery: You never know when the next connection might pay off big. Plus when you network you typically don't hear the word "no" like you do in sales, so networking is more fun. In networking you plant seeds and hope they grow... planting and hoping is always fun. That's why people buy lottery tickets.
But most networking seeds don't grow. You can make lots of connections, but you only successfully network when those connections become mutually beneficial.
Think about your current networking results. Some businesses get lots of referrals from vendors, partners, etc. If that's the case, spending significant time on networking probably makes sense. If you get very few referrals--even though you work hard to create those connections--either your approach is wrong or you're in a business where referrals are less likely.
Here's an example. In law school most lawyers are taught to network with their local bar, but those efforts rarely pay off. A lawyer friend spent years attending Bar Association events, having dinner with other lawyers, basically networking himself silly... but the only referrals he received were cases other lawyers didn't want.
Good lawyers keep the good clients for themselves. They're not going to dole any out to those (lawyers) less fortunate.
So my friend took another approach. He does a fair amount of real estate work and decided to network with local real estate professionals. But he didn't just send a letter and a card: He referred a few of his clients to one of the more successful local agents. She appreciated the gesture and sent some work his way.
That's mutually beneficial: He needs clients; she needs a lawyer who will deliver on time, since hanging on to a closing date is often the bane of an agent's professional existence.
Mutually beneficial is your goal too. Otherwise business networking is a waste of time.
So how much time should you spend?
Twenty minutes a day or a couple of hours a week.
Feel you have plenty more time on your hands? Fine. Use that time to sell.
I know twenty minutes a day doesn't sound like a lot of time, but if you identify the right targets, segment them appropriately and provide something of real value, a few minutes a day will pay off a lot more than collecting business cards, playing golf, or whatever other no-real-purpose schmoozing tactics you currently employ.
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