It’s only awkward if you make it awkward. Effective networking at conferences can be both helpful for your business and even a little fun. Especially these days when we are wired to the hilt for digital interactions, it’s easy to lose sight of the nuances of in-person meetings.
If you feel self-conscious meeting with people, remember to emphasize the person you are connecting with rather than yourself; make an honest effort to learn about them in an authentic, meaningful way. With some strong preparation, the right set of supports, and an eye for follow-up, making face-to-face connections can be an effective way to grow your business.
Here are a few handy tips to help you network for success at conferences:
Make a list, check it twice
As the saying goes, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Before you head into the thick of it, make sure you’ve looked at the list of attendees and developed a networking shortlist of those you want to connect with. Your shortlist should support your clearly stated business goals for attending the conference.
Do you need more leads for a particular product? Are you looking to hire strong talent for a key role? Is there an influencer out there in the crowd who could bring your project significant exposure? Figure out your reasons for attending the conference and craft your list accordingly. Intentionality breeds confidence and having a game plan ahead of time will make networking less intimidating.
Bring the merch
Having a well-designed, branded image that you can share with people at conferences will help them remember you and connect with your business. The general rule here: the more creative and colorful, the better. Every company has the same run-of-the-mill pens, memo pads, and key rings. Think outside the box with your giveaways.
Bring a flash drive with your company’s logo emblazoned on it with some preloaded decks that share your organization’s key business insights. Give your fellow attendees specially-made business cards that offer discounts or trial access to your product or service as a way to introduce your business. If you’re a more introverted business leader, this is a fantastic way to let your content do the talking for you while sharing items of value that get people engaged with your business.
If you feed them, they will come
Wining and dining often leads to successful networking. Remember that targeted shortlist of people to meet we mentioned earlier? Here’s a great way to put that list to good use. Pick one or two especially important people from that list and treat them to a nice meal. Meals are opportunities to build a strong rapport with a captive audience and offer focused time for more serious discussions.
If an intimate dinner doesn’t work for your situation and you need to appeal to a broader audience, sponsor a breakfast at the conference where you can discuss issues of importance in your industry. While everyone is munching and discussing the topic at hand, provide everyone with a clever hashtag that will get your company’s message out there. You’ll have attendees tweeting and posting pictures of what they loved about the event, and your company’s role will be highlighted as well.
Come with backup
It’s virtually impossible to fluidly connect with every person you encounter. Your best bet to maximize exposure is to bring support with you and always pair up when networking in large groups. If you and your partner are working multiple rooms, you’ll get a feel for each other’s style over time and will be able to play off each other’s unique skills and quirks seamlessly.
Also, networking can get tiring, so simply being able to check out for a few minutes to make a call or grab some coffee will help you keep your energy up while your partner continues to make the necessary connections. Lastly, having someone there to help you synthesize all of the new information you’ve learned and plan next steps can be incredibly helpful to taking advantage of the networking you accomplished that day and leveraging it for your business’s gain.
Follow-up is everything
Arguably the most important part of networking comes after the initial interaction: following up. This key next step is essentially the whole point of making those connections in the first place–to connect later on and support each other’s business goals in some way. A few smart practices for following up include:
- Send a quick email to establish contact. That way, you’re in each other’s queue for connecting again in the near future.
- Offer some support right off the bat. Figure out what they’re looking for (a lead, job opportunities, connections to people in your network, etc.) and provide what seems reasonable.
- Use tools like LinkedIn to formally place people you meet in your network and to get a better understanding of their professional circle.
- Schedule a follow-up call. Sometimes you can’t go that deep in the midst of a busy conference, so throw something on the calendar in the following weeks to ensure that time is allocated to discuss the next steps.
While networking can feel overwhelming, simply being prepared, leveraging the right tools, and prioritizing follow-up can go a long way towards ensuring that your time at conferences is well spent. Follow these tips and you’ll be able to maximize your efforts in building the right connections necessary to grow your business.
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