LinkedIn for real life: networking strategies for conferences

Scaling / March 19, 2012 / Admin

When you consider the outright and opportunity costs of attending a conference or tradeshow, or even worse still, taking your small business to exhibit at one, you can easily convince yourself that you need to take advantage of your time there and spend as much effort as possible “networking”. After all, you need to get something in return for your time and expenses, so you better make sure that everyone you talk to gets one of your fancy business cards and awesome swag you had made up for the event.

So, you run around like a lunatic the entire time you’re there, handing out cards three at a time and making sure everyone who even looks your direction has their own branded three-in-one pen/usb key/back massager. Your swag is the swagiest and everyone is definitely going to remember you and your sweet 14 mil, letterpress embossed, pantone-inked business cards. Not to mention the extra dufflebag you needed to bring back all the cards you collected. You are a networking superstar now, right? Errr…

Quality not quantity.

Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation with someone whose eyes keep looking over your shoulder as they scan the room for someone else to talk to? Creepy and uncomfortable, huh? When your only goal is to make an initial introduction and grab a business card, then after that’s accomplished, it’s time to leave the carcass for the vultures and head out to hunt down your next prey right?

In today’s business landscape, the internet has made capturing large numbers of trivial contacts quite easy. Instead of looking to meet as many people as possible, take the chance to have meaningful face to face time with the people you meet. Maybe every conversation you get into won’t lead to anything worthwhile initially, but you never know who that person knows and what referrals you might eventually get. Take an interest in everyone you meet and spend time to get to know them better. Make sure you capture those details you learn as you go along too, because after several days (and usually late evenings) at a conference, you can be sure those details will fade quickly. Jot down their kids ages on the back of their business card, or use a small notebook to write down further details. I’ll write a number on their business card and then use that same number in my notebook to associate the name with their notes, saving the time needed to write their name again in your notebook. The same technique works great with any notes app for your phone too.

Once you’re back in the office, take the time to transcribe these into your CRM, or have someone else do it for you, but don’t let this info just sit in a drawer. Being able to recall details your initial conversation can be a really easy way to follow up with a prospect via email, or help kick the conversation off if you get a phone call from them one day.

Doing favours for others.

Can you remember the last time somebody went out of their way to help you when it was totally uncalled for? You were just talking to someone about how little you were looking forward to the yard work you had to do this weekend and they offered to lend you their leaf blower. Or when you were complaining about how slow your computer was to your cousin and he offers to help install some more RAM in it. People who are unexpectedly considerate like this are about a million times more memorable than swag or an elevator pitch heard whilst having a business card shoved in your face.

Merlin Mann of and the fantastic podcast Back To Work, says that “networking is doing favours for other people without expecting anything in return”. It really stuck in my mind as something that really rings true. If you can make an effort to do something genuinely helpful for someone else, aside from the personal satisfaction that it will give you, it almost always comes back to you at some point in the form or a returned favour, a business referral, or even a direct sale when years later, that person has switched careers into the very industry you service.

You don’t need a conference to network.

Conferences are an obvious opportunity to meet new people who are in the same or similar industry as you. But sometimes just the fact that you are both at a conference, can make the interaction seem slightly phoney, or disingenuous even. If you make networking something that you do all the time, it can be done anywhere really.

Whenever you meet someone new, at a party or wedding, or even waiting for your oil change at the mechanics, try learning about their interests and see if you might be able to help them somehow. I hate the question “So what do you do for a living?” as it doesn’t let the receiver avoid talking about their work without being rude. We’ve all had those days at the office that after it’s over, the idea of talking about work one minute longer compels you to start scanning the room for the nearest balcony to jump from. I prefer asking something like “So what occupies your time these days?” which allows for them to talk about any of their interests, including their work. And from there, perhaps it’s something that you either have some experience with, or can offer some lay persons feedback on, or allows you to make an introduction to someone you know who might be able to help them.

I have lost count of the number of occasions I’ve been out with no intention or expectation of meeting anyone who might help my business, only to end up with an email address of someone either looking for my services or a potential colleague that I might be able to work with down the road. I was at a bar in Corner Brook, Newfoundland recently on vacation when somehow I found myself in a conversation with someone looking for IT help. After a few pints in each of us and with me trying my best to decipher his thick maritime accent over loud music, it perhaps wasn’t the smoothest example of networking ever, but it does go to show that you never know where and when you’ll meet business contacts.

Networking and attending conferences is sometimes hard to quantify from a purely monetary point of view. But if you spend the time to genuinely learn about others and see if you can help them out, those efforts will, at some point, turn into dollar signs.

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