Top networking tips from Len Rainford

Posted on: 26 June 2014

We all know we have to do it. But networking can be a minefield when you’re setting out in business. Where do you start?

Although the origins of the phrase ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ are unclear, the value of it isn’t.

There are plenty of choices to be made about how to network, when, where and with whom. But before you launch into joining any networking clubs, investing time in social media or building relationships, you need to do your homework.

Our top networking tips, which include the contributions of networking expert Len Rainford, who has operated a number of unique business networking events, will help you set the foundations for rewarding and enjoyable networking activity, whatever shape or form it takes.

Do a DIY personality test

You don’t have to do a full Myers Briggs analysis to discover what type of networking will suit you best, but you can use some of their preferences to help shape your activity.

Extroverts are more likely to enjoy large networking events that present an opportunity to speak in front of an audience, deliver a sales pitch and work a room packed with potential customers. Introverts on the other hand may prefer using social media to connect with their target market. They may focus on those with whom they find common interests and their communication style has a tendency to be gentler.

Spontaneous people are likely to avoid committing to networking clubs that necessitate regular attendance, with strict formats and outcomes. These are best left to those who like structure and routine. Twitter is great for the more spontaneous because it’s instant and flexible.

According to Len, the number one rule is that you should give first and receive second. “Don't think ‘what's in it for me’, think more ‘what's in it for you’”, says Len. “Sell only yourself, because people buy people before buying services.”

Fit networking around your other commitments

Networking needs to form an integral part of your marketing strategy and is likely to be the responsibility of the business owner. Finding where to prioritise it amongst the other important aspects of running a business will require constant adjustment. So focus on those activities that suit your diary, such as lunch clubs if staff meetings are always first thing in the morning and you have children to collect in the evening.

“Choose groups where you are more likely to meet your target market and like-minded people. Try different ones often and monitor their effectiveness. Also attend trade shows and events relevant to your market”, says Len.

Networking is often the thing that interferes the most with your work life balance. If you think attending an evening event with drinks and canapes or spending your evening meeting contacts via a Tweetup is important, make sure you get the most out of it by following up the next day.

Networking shouldn’t just be the responsibility of the business owner. Spreading the load amongst the right team members not only frees the owner up to get other things done, but puts more bodies out in the market to build trusted, long term relationships.

Go with what comes naturally

Thanks to social media, networking doesn’t have to involve plucking up the courage to talk to strangers at drinks receptions. Many businesses thrive on the relationships they develop via Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

We can all spot an awkward communicator a mile off, so the type of networking that works best for you should start with where you are most comfortable. It may then take some practice to perfect your techniques (try watching how others network via relevant groups on LinkedIn to get some ideas) but don’t force it. If it doesn’t work, try something new.

Know your target market

Assessing your own preferences is only worthwhile when you combine them with those of the people you want to build relationships with. There’s no point in spending hours on Facebook looking for work when your customers are all interacting with your competitors on LinkedIn. So to get the most from your efforts, do some research to find out how your target market networks and match that with your own activity.

Len recommends asking for lists of event attendees in advance and reviewing trade association websites and magazines. He also points out the benefit of simply asking your customers which networks they attend.

It is worth making sure you know your target customers’ needs too. And how you are different to your competitors. This affects the results your networking can deliver because it enables you to tailor your messaging during conversations (whether online or in person).

Remember what you’re trying to achieve

Many people make the mistake of thinking that networking is about making sales. However if you start with this objective you’re likely to fail.

“Too many people collect lots of business cards which then get put in a drawer and forgotten about”, says Len. “Others go all out to sell their company or services rather than get to know people first. It is rare to gain immediate business at a networking event. Networking is the platform for creating an opportunity to sell at a later stage.”

Some people network to build their brand and company reputation. They want to be visible in the market and have a known voice on topics that they have experience in. Others network to learn. They may be interested in a particular market or sector, or they may be seeking the expert knowledge of key opinion leaders. Some business owners even use networking to work out how to differentiate themselves from their competition.

Whatever your objectives, setting them out before you start and then focusing your networking activities to help you meet them should result in you not only starting to see results, but you enjoying yourself too.

If you have any favourite techniques or tips for networking do let us know by using the comments field below. 

Len Rainford is Entrepreneur in Residence at Lancaster University Management School and ran The Business Network Liverpool until 2013. @LenRainford1

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