Marketing executives use it as a key tool for their success. Business consultants use it to obtain new clients and often make it a key part of their overall strategies. Meeting and event planners see it as a necessary effort to expand their business. What is it? It’s networking, and in the world of business, people network to help smooth out the potholes on the road to success. For Christy Lamagna, CMP, CMM, CTSM, founder of Strategic Meetings & Events in New York City, networking is about starting relationships.
“If you approach it with a sales goal in mind you are cheating yourself and others out of the processes’ full potential,” Lamagna says. “Our audiences are becoming more savvy so we need deeper and broader partner networks so we can innovate, collaborate and inspire our guests. The deeper the bench, the more options we can offer.”
Building social relationships is the foundation of any kind of organized society. Only in the last half of the 20th century did it become something that people did deliberately. The famous book How to Win Friends & Influence People was published in 1936 and, in great part, was all about networking, but author Dale Carnegie never once uses that word in his book. Susan RoAne and Bob Burg began speaking on the topic in the 1980s — actually calling it “networking,” and both published two of the first books on the topic.
Today, networking has evolved to incorporate social networking as it’s called when using social media. The two not only can, but should work hand-in-hand.
“Seeing someone’s facial expressions, gestures and body language is such an integral part of the communication process…people are hungry for human contact.”
— Jenny Powers
“The best networking opportunities are outside formal networking functions when conversation can flow more naturally,” Lamagna says. “I like planes, especially business class, and charity events — anywhere you are standing is a potential conversation.”
According to Susan Smolarek, event planner and director of group sales at Visit Lake Geneva (Wisconsin), part of her role as an event planner means that she recognizes the vital role networking plays within the industry.
“While we have a great deal of technology that allows for communicating long distance, the value of bringing people together face-to-face is still vital to business success today,” Smolarek says. “There is something stronger gained when a face-to-face connection occurs.”
As Smolarek explains, planning the networking component of an event requires just as much strategic forethought as the rest of the event. For example, what is the amount of time dedicated to networking in comparison to the rest of the agenda? What’s the mix of structured and non-structured networking?
“Add creativity to networking versus just providing the standard cocktail hour for networking,” Smolarek says. “Consider speed dating, round-table discussion tables, incorporating the use of social media platforms and team competitions such as scavenger hunts for certain attendees.”
Networking has evolved from large-scale events where people walk around trading business cards to more intimate atmospheres where people can truly get to know one another.
“People are starting to value more authentic ways of getting to know people,” says Jenny Powers, founder and CEO at Running With Heels LLC in New York City. “With the amount we all spend in front of computers and looking at our phones, face-to-face networking has become more critical. Social media networking is fine for introductions but once those have occurred its time to get off the URL and meet IRL (in real life).”
Indeed, before technology, networking was more face-to-face and less global. With technology, networking has become more global and outreach easier. However, as Gail Tolstoi-Miller, CEO and chief staffing strategist of Consultnetworx in Livingston, New Jersey, and author of Networking Karma: How Today’s Cutting Edge Networking Trends Can Help You Connect and Conquer, (Consultnetworx, 2016) explains, with technology there are some downsides, hiding behind the technology and not having the motivation to interact with others face-to-face or relating on an empathetic level.
“The younger generation looks down too much at their phones and has lost the ability to interface in person on a more personal level, including making eye contact,” Tolstoi-Miller says.
And how has in-person networking evolved to incorporate social media networking? Can they work hand-in-hand? Using social media and in-person networking is really leveraging networking to the fullest.
“It is knowing how to use technology to connect with others, then taking it to the next level and meet in person or have a FaceTime meeting,” Tolstoi-Miller says. “It is easy to get caught up in joining LinkedIn groups, Facebook pages or having a million connections, but if you don’t become an active participant, it all means nothing.”
The key to successful networking is to go where your prospective clients, existing clients and competitors go. If you are looking for high-end clients to book your luxury venue, don’t go to a Meet-Up. Go to a higher priced ticketed event where your target market will be.
“Most networking takes place at events that aren’t actually positioned as ‘networking’ events,” Powers says.
And remember, networking is 24/7. It is about being aware of your surroundings and having the ability to have great listening skills. “So if you hear someone talking about their upcoming wedding then you need to have the ability to politely join the conversation. Some of the best networking is not done at networking events but on the grocery line, your kid’s soccer game or airport,” Tolstoi-Miller says.
Beth Bridges, author of Networking on Purpose: A Five-Part Success Plan to Build a Powerful and Profitable Business Network (iBridge Enterprises, 2013) and founder of The Networking Motivator in Clovis, California, explains that meeting and event planners need to go where people are like-minded. “This doesn’t mean people who are the same as you, it means people who are there to meet people and build relationships, too,” Bridges says. “Chamber of commerce and association meetings are some of the best because they are designed and promoted as networking organizations or at least as a source of those opportunities.”
Conferences can be very good as well. Here’s what Bridges has learned from attending many events across the country: “Yes, you’ll meet a lot of people. And you should connect with them at the event and follow up with connecting on social media. But, you’ll probably only stick with one or two people after an event.
“In other words, you’ll talk to and connect with perhaps dozens of people,” Bridges says. “One or two at most will stay connected with you over time, especially when you’re at a distance. Keep that in mind when you attend these events and you won’t be disappointed afterwards.”
Some key ways to make the most out of your networking efforts:
To really maximize the energy of the partnership you’re forging with your referral sources, it’s critical to spend time with them. Just going to a social function or sitting side-by-side at some type of conference or networking event isn’t enough. You have to be face-to-face, talking and exploring commonalities and complimentary aspects of each of your businesses to be as powerful a referral source for each other as you can be.
As the vice president of brand strategy at J Public Relations, one of the country’s top luxury travel PR agencies, Amy Ogden works with hotels and resorts across the globe.
“One of my networking recommendations is to arrive early,” Ogden says. “This is easily my favorite networking tip. Arriving early allows you to slowly and confidently meet people as they arrive — when they are seeking someone to chat with. Over the course of the event you end up being the ‘mayor’ of the room. You know many of the guests and end up introducing new people to the mix. Even the most talented networker’s heart skips a beat when they walk into a crowded and loud room. Arriving early takes away the anxiety and sets you up for success.”
Ogden also recommends that you have real conversations. Don’t look at every guest as a dollar sign. “I excel at networking because I legitimately love meeting new people,” Ogden says. “Some women I’ve met at networking events are now my closest friends today. Take a real interest in the person. The business comes later.”
Finally, follow up. When Ogden has a networking event, she schedules time the next day for focused follow-up. This is often a quick email connecting or setting a coffee or lunch meeting.
“It sounds obvious, but if you don’t follow up, you may as well have skipped the event altogether,” Ogden says. “Follow-up is everything.”
The future of networking will continue to focus and emphasize the importance of face-to-face events.
“These days instead of hopping on a call, more and more people are connecting via Skype or Facetime. Seeing someone’s facial expressions, gestures and body language is such an integral part of the communication process, and in this era of technology, people are hungry for human contact,” Powers says.
Networking will further evolve through members-only groups, social clubs and in terms of technology, Powers believes more apps will begin to appear, connecting people by interest, need and geographical location the way dating sites already do.
Bridges says new and evolving technology will make it much easier to keep track of who you know and will help remind you of who you need to reach out to. It also means you will never have an excuse for forgetting someone’s name.
“Your glasses could scan someone’s face and remind you of their name, company, the last time you saw them and what they’ve recently accomplished in their business,” Bridges says. “On the negative side, it could make interaction a little less sincere. So as the software evolves, make sure that you add as much genuine humanity and authenticity as you can to your networking activities.”
Technology will continue allowing people to connect in an easier and faster way. “But as technology continues to expand, my concern is our ability to connect with others on a human and empathetic level by hiding behind our computer or phone,” Tolstoi-Miller says. “I don’t want the next generation to lose the effective communication skills and emotional intelligence that makes us evolve as humans.”
Lamagna agrees. “Networking is assisted by technology but planners need to remember that just as the events we plan are predominantly live, networking should be, too,” Lamagna says. “Nothing can replace face-to-face connections and interactions. Our audiences are becoming more savvy so we need deeper and broader partner networks so we can innovate, collaborate and inspire our guests. The deeper the bench, the more options we can offer.” C&IT