Whether you love “working the room” or cringe when it’s time to press the flesh, knowing how to network is essential to your success as a seller. Sure, marketing and social media may do the heavy lifting to establish and maintain your brand image, but sometimes there’s just no substitute for effective in-person contact—and many a deal is still sealed with an actual handshake rather than a virtual one.
With Ariba LIVE 2014 coming up March 17-19 in Las Vegas, now’s a great time to brush up your interactive acumen so you can make the most of this year’s networking activities. Read on to learn what makes one-on-one connections so critical and glean best practices to hone your networking edge.
Why is in-person networking important?
While virtual communication plays a crucial role in business today, our human senses give us information about each other in face-to-face interaction that we can’t get any other way. What’s more, it’s efficient: most of us know whether we like and trust someone within minutes of meeting them, and that energy sparks an initial bond that can then be strengthened and sustained online. You can also quickly compare notes about your capabilities and their requirements, making it easier to seal deals fast.
Ten top tips to make your networking really deliver
Since you want maximum ROI for the time and funds invested in any conference, preparation is key. Good networking takes time, focus, and planning that begin well before the event. Once you arrive, schedules are tight and time is short—you’ve got to hit the ground running if you want your efforts to pay off. These ten tips will help optimize your results.
1. Identify your objectives. Weeks in advance, allocate a chunk of time to consider exactly why you’re attending this event, then determine a strategy to meet those goals. Write down your thoughts so you can see them clearly. If you’ve been hoping to meet specific people, you might already have a written “hit list” of names; if not, this is the time to identify targets, whether they’re companies or individuals. Take advantage of available event resources to help. For example, if you’re registered for Ariba LIVE, you can use the mobile app to review who’s attending, send messages and meeting invitations, and get invites from others long before the conference begins.
2. Know before you go. Once you’ve established your hit list, research the needs and concerns of those you plan to meet and consider what you might offer them. Don’t limit yourself to business alone; knowing someone’s hobbies, passions, or even favorite charities can be useful as well. Shared interests can help you establish common ground and provide a natural reason to get together after the event.
3. Lighten your load. Teaming up with a trusted colleague is a good idea—everyone can use a good wingman or -woman. Networking with a buddy can help you stay focused on site, but why not enlist your sidekick as early as possible? Two heads are better than one, especially for brainstorming your strategy and performing pre-event research. Use the divide-and-conquer approach, compare notes, and keep each other motivated. If one of you feels nervous meeting new people or is still refining an elevator pitch, you can coach each other with practice sessions before you arrive.
4. Leverage your network. During your planning phase, reach out to those you already know for help. You never know who might have a connection to a decision maker, their assistant, or one of their key influencers until you ask. If both you and your buddy do this, you’ll double your odds of learning something useful. A tidbit of relevant information might provide the perfect opening to start a conversation with the CEO you find yourself standing next to in the elevator—a much better introduction than any pitch you could memorize!
5. Prepare to chat. You researched the folks on your hit parade, but what about all those random-yet-relevant people you might meet? Striking up a conversation can feel awkward at first, so it’s good to have some general topics in mind (a recent news item, a local tourist attraction) as well as generic open-ended questions, such as where to go on vacation or something conference-related: “Can you recommend the best way to spend our free night on Tuesday?” or, “I can’t decide which sponsor dinner to attend.” Asking someone’s opinion or advice is usually a good way to get them talking.
6. Relax and be real. No matter whom you converse with, focus exclusively on them and really listen to what they say rather than jumping ahead mentally to how you’ll respond. Keep asking questions that encourage the other person to open up. Their answers will lead to further queries, and you’ll be having a real conversation before you know it, with solid information for effective follow-up. Good listening skills also help you stand out from the crowd, because so few people actually listen well.
7. Use business cards as tiny notepads. Once you’ve established mutual interest, lingering isn’t necessary, so ask for the person’s business card. Most will reciprocate by requesting yours, leaving you both free to move on to another encounter. Even in the digital age, cards still provide a great place to immediately jot notes about what you discussed—especially any specific promises you may have made (don’t trust this critical information to memory!). Taking the time to record these notes will free your mind so you can offer undivided attention to the next person.
8. Q&A your way. You don’t need to be a keynote speaker or moderate a panel to shine light on your brand. When it’s time for Q&A, you can score a glimmer of fame with a great question. Stand up, introduce yourself and what you do, and then ask your question. When the session concludes, don’t be surprised if other attendees approach you. Having the courage to participate in a public forum positions you as a leader others will want to talk to, especially if the better-known presenters are surrounded.
9. Pump the breaks. View session breaks as work time rather than R&R, since they offer an excellent chance to engage fellow attendees in discussion. Approach someone who asked an interesting question during Q&A (see how that works?) and follow up on what they said; perhaps you’ll agree to talk more later, then use the rest of the break to circulate and meet more of your targets. Avoid wasting precious time in endless food lines—decide to eat earlier or later than the crowds, or bring your own survival snacks that can stay in your tote if an impromptu lunch meeting should develop.
10. Follow up faithfully. Don’t wait till you get home to follow up with connections; a brief but prompt email can make all the difference in how well you’re remembered. Using your notes for reference, remind your new friend of your shared experience, tell them you’re glad you met, and provide any information or resources you promised to send. Then check in again at regular intervals after the event. Think long term and be generous; by putting yourself at their disposal for both current and future needs, you can turn brief contacts into solid relationships.
- “15 Tips from Keith Ferrazzi, Conference Commando,” Keith Ferrazzi, founder and chairman, Ferrazzi Greenlight, 2005
- “Three Networking Habits to Drop and What to Do Instead,” Caroline Ceniza-Levine Caroline, forbes.com contributor, 14 June 2013
- “Six Icebreakers that Take the Pain Out of Networking Events,” Kristi Hedges, forbes.com contributor, 30 August 2013
- “Eight Signs You’re a Terrible Networker,” Darrah Brustein, forbes.com contributor, 6 November 2013