One sure-fire way to help your business grow is by meeting new people who can turn into potential sales or referrals down the road. But networking has a few social rules, so know how to play before you jump in.

What Is a Networking Event?

Chances are you have been to a networking event or two. Networking allows people to share ideas, meet new people, and make connections.

A networking event can be a Happy Hour-like gathering coordinated by a local business group or a larger scale gathering that is part of a conference. Whether large or small, the payoff from networking can be huge. Smaller events at local bars or restaurants will allow you to talk in depth to a small group of people. At gatherings at business conferences, you may meet more people but have less in-depth conversations.

Why Network?

Whether your business is selling widgets or manufacturing dolls’ shoes, you will want to find people who do what you do. You might need to find potential clients. Or a new supplier. Whatever the reason, broadening your network of business associates, potential clients and work colleagues will benefit you in the long run.

Big city dwellers might run in to business associates every day of the week. Their small town counterparts might have to dig a little deeper to network. Industry associations typically hold regular gatherings as a benefit of membership, along with access to a listings of members, mention in print and email publications, webinars, live chats and continuing education.

How to Find Networking Events?

Start searching for networking events in your local area:

  1. Do a web search on events and groups for your local area. Look for business associations, unions, and local organizations for people interested in the same subject, like the Social Media Club. Also try Meetup.com.
  2. Ask around. Talk to colleagues and to clients about good places to meet people. Where do they socialize professionally?
  3. Narrow down what you want to get out of the networking event. Do you want to sell your widgets? Find a supplier? Form a partnership?
  4. Decide how far you are willing to travel. Only within walking distance of your office? In a neighboring town? An out-of-town conference?
  5. And don’t forget alumni associations of local colleges and universities. Reach out to find career-focused groups within institutions of higher education.

Finding Contacts

Belonging to a couple of industry groups will give you the opportunity to mingle, meet-n-greet, and yes, even schmooze. Join one association or several, but commit to attending at least one gathering of each organization you join. If possible, attend a gathering before paying membership dues. You won’t know if you will click with the organization until you meet the officers, members, and leaders of the group and first understand the group’s culture and style.

You’re at the Networking Event...Now What?

Once you have completed your membership application to an industry group or association, keep an eye out for emails. Scan each email for links to news and event listings. Sign up for events that match your schedule.

You will need to prepare for the event by:

  • Location -- find out the location of the event and plan accordingly to allow time to arrive early.
  • Dress -- after work events will be business formal or casual depending on your industry, while weekend events might be more casual.
  • Business cards -- bring plenty! Make sure all information listed on your card is accurate.
  • Perfecting your pitch...sell yourself -- you might only have a couple of minutes for each new person you meet, but use your time wisely. Craft your elevator pitch in 2 to 3 sentences. Keep the pitch short and sweet.
  • Pitch you, not your widget -- tempting as it might be to use a networking event to sell your inventory...don’t. Make connections, but leave the widget catalogs and sales fliers at the office.
  • Strategy -- What do you want to get out of the event? Aim to make new contacts, not instant sales. The relationships will develop.

Goals for Networking

Have a game plan. With a stack of business cards, work the room. Don’t be shy. Chances are everyone at the event will be doing the same thing: making connections. And don’t be nervous! Chances are you are not the only first-timer. Remind yourself that you came here to meet people. Set a goal of speaking with 5-10 new people to start.

After the event, take stock of who you met, what you learned, and whether you want to go to another gathering. Follow up! Hang on to the cards and after the event, send a handwritten or email note to tell your new contacts that it was nice meeting them. Add them to your contact management database and follow up every month or two just to check in, with no direct agenda. You never know who might be able to help you form a partnership, refer you new business or buy your product.