Much has been said about technology’s potential to transform business in ways that were, up until recently, unimaginable. The amount of column inches that we at EB dedicate to the power of social media as a marketing tool certainly won’t have gone unnoticed to our most astute readers.
However, where differences of opinion begin to emerge is over the extent to which technology has replaced – or will replace – tried and tested formulas. Nowhere is this more pertinent than in relation to the practice of networking, which has been a staple part of any businessperson’s repertoire for as long as most of us can remember. One can’t simply ignore the value of a spot of ‘meet and greet’ as a means of attracting interest in the early stages of an enterprise.
Nevertheless, if there is one thing that digital marketing has on its side that an entrepreneur often doesn’t, it is time. For many a small business owner, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. Time is money after all – or so it is said – thus any time spent out of the office has to be fully justified. And given the instantaneous nature of some contemporary communication and advertising channels, an entrepreneur may be forgiven for politely declining an invitation to an evening of canapés and cocktails. Yet, there is still something unique about networking that merits the time it entails setting aside.
“The most difficult thing about running your own business is getting appointments,” explains Brad Burton, managing director of business networking community 4Networking. “The thing about networking is that it allows you to meet people. It offers opportunities to get you out of the house, keep your brain working, meet people, build up your contact base and get business.”
Burton stresses though that in order to really see the returns from networking, people may need to slightly alter their mindset. “Business networking is nothing to do with business – that is the fallacy that has been perpetuated out there,” he says. “Business networking is to do with people. If I don’t like you and you don’t like me, it is going nowhere, and I think that is the bit that people actually need to get their head around.”
Automatic success is not guaranteed when it comes to networking. Securing new business isn’t going to happen at the drop of a hat, and this is often what irks the less patient entrepreneurs. However, with sufficient levels of dedication, the rewards will start to come. “Networking takes time, and if you have not got time for your networking to work, it isn’t going to work,” Burton adds.
A business owner may also be overwhelmed by the wealth of networking opportunities now on offer, so much so that they don’t even know where to start. This is put into perspective by Warren Cass, managing director of business support network Business Scene.
“Twenty years ago, networking wouldn’t even be a chapter in a marketing book,” he says. “It is now a multi-million pound industry in pretty much most countries and, from all of the research we have done, it is considered the number one marketing strategy for small businesses in the UK.”
How then, can one go about selecting the best events to attend, and thus give themselves a fighting chance of success from the outset? It would appear that laying down some goals is a decent place to start. “I think you need to know what you’re hoping to achieve,” says Stuart Russell, founder of business networking events website FindNetworkingEvents.com. “If you’re purely trying to get sales, then one type of event might be better than another. If you are looking for something social, then you can maybe look towards those more casual events.”
Ascertaining the individuals you want to be meeting can also make attendance more worthwhile. “We launched a new product earlier this year which was targeting start-ups so I looked at going to a lot of start-up networking events,” explains Adele Woodthorpe, owner of the PR agency Woodthorpe Communications. “You have got to identify what kind of people you want to be networking with first and just research where you can get involved with that.”
And technology has certainly helped in this regard – of that there can be little doubt. “It has given people the chance to engage before they meet face-to-face so there is already a familiarity when they get together,” says Cass. “The positive thing about that is it means that building rapport and relationship is an accelerated process as a result.”
Needless to say, the more groundwork somebody puts in before an event, the less difficult it should make achieving one’s objectives upon arrival. That is not to say however that one should take a new online friendship for granted. Personality is everything when it comes to networking, so it pays to enter a room with confidence, both in yourself and in your business. “The two biggest things that I find as a problem are people who don’t know the etiquette of networking and people who don’t have emotional intelligence and therefore can’t read how they are being reacted to in the room,” says Cass. “And if you have got the etiquette wrong and zero emotional intelligence, networking may not be for you.”
Ultimately though, the crux of any networking encounter is to work it towards the goals you set yourself. Even if that means scheduling further correspondence following an initial conversation, the priority must be to get something solid out of the experience which is going to benefit your business and justify the investment of time and energy. “The most important part of any networking strategy is to make sure that the casual encounters at the event are followed up and turned into proper relationships,” Cass continues. “The whole of the networking experience is a waste of time unless you are then going on to develop the relationship.”
Indeed, a sense of achievement can be heightened if those initial objectives are realistic, and take into account the very nature of networking. Burton explains that, far from expecting miracles, a business owner should aim to leave an event feeling fulfilled, and satisfied that there is the potential for further gains in the future. “The key to understanding that networking is working is to feel that you have gained something in terms of knowledge about yourself, knowledge about your business, and contacts,” he says. “Small incremental gains are what people need to come away with. And eventually, what happens is the more and more people you know, the deeper your network becomes, the wider your base becomes, and the more opportunity that comes your way.”
Luck also plays its part in business and Cass is keen to stress that networking is not purely about the plethora of events geared specifically towards the needs of entrepreneurs. “For most people, networking is about going to an event, and I think that as a strategy needs to change,” he says. “I myself have picked up business on an Easyjet flight, on a train coming back from Euro Disney and from all sorts of other random places. That is because I understand it is not just about selling – it is about having conversations with people and being interested in people, and from those things come opportunities.”
This goes some way toward explaining Cass’s stance on technology’s place in the networking equation: it is a helpful assistant, but by no means a replacement. “The internet has made the world a much smaller place and transactions are happening without people having even met, but I don’t believe they are significant transactions,” he says. “I think the vast majority of deals still need to see whites of eyes and business owners still need to have that confidence and trust in the person they are dealing with.”