One of the dilemmas when you start business networking is finding and choosing the groups to join. There are many options available, and a dizzying array of events such as breakfast meetings, charitable events or ‘drinks’ evenings. But how do you find these networking events, and decide which one is right for you?
Whatever line of business you are in, you will want to meet fellow professionals to swap ideas and experiences, and to keep up to date with developments in your field.
You may already belong to a trade association; if not, there is lots of information about these organisations available on the Internet or at your local library. Most of these societies have annual conferences, which are a great way to meet people, but don’t leave it at that. Check to see if there are regional subgroups or MeetUps, or whether the association has groups on LinkedIn or Facebook that you can interact with in between formal meetings.
You may also be able to find virtual networks; online communities linking together people with a common interest. For an example, as a freelance writer I belong to several groups on LinkedIn and Facebook that connect writers from across the world. These are invaluable in asking questions, sharing problems and finding new opportunities.
The Importance of Weak Links
Networking with fellow professionals (“strong links”) is essential but don’t overlook the value of meeting people outside of your area of expertise. The importance of so-called “weak links” has long been recognized; these are the people that you come across occasionally, who have different interests from you.
As Andrew McAfee points out, “The ‘problem’ with strong ties is that if persons A and B have a strong tie, they’re also likely to be strongly tied to all members of each other’s networks” and you may eventually arrive at a situation where everyone shares connections with everyone else. This is good for sharing ideas and information, but not as beneficial for stimulating creativity, finding novel solutions to problems, or expanding your circle of contacts. Weak links connect you to other networks, bringing different, but complementary, people and ideas.
There are many benefits to joining a local business network, and these are an excellent way of acquiring weak links. You might choose to join the Chamber of Commerce, or a well-known business networking organisation such as BNI. Other groups may fit your needs as well; you can find out about these from the library or through your existing contacts.
Before you choose, look at the type of events on offer and the rules of the organisation (for instance, does it have a strict “no selling” policy?) Depending on your interests or situation, you might want to consider a specialised group, perhaps a charitable organisation such as the Lions Club, or one of the many special-interest groups such as women’s or veteran’s networks.
Be Proactive in Networking
If you can’t find what you want, consider starting your own group. It is very easy to set up an interest group on Facebook or LinkedIn, or to just form a local group with a few like-minded people. One of the most successful networking groups I have joined (the UK-based Forward Ladies) grew from a handful of people to a nationwide organisation by the simple expedient of asking each person who attended to bring a friend to the next event, thus roughly doubling the numbers each time!
Networking, Relationships, and Building Your Business
Whichever groups you choose, the important thing is to keep networking and to maintain relationships with the new people whom you meet. That way you will build your profile, raise your visibility and always have someone to turn to when you want to discuss a problem or an opportunity. Whatever you do, remember that networking not only benefits you professionally- it can also be fun!