Networking events are a great way to extend your contact base and reach for greater success; 78% of start-ups cite networking as being critical to establishing their early customer base.
However, these events have developed a bit of a dour reputation over the years.
If picturing one makes you think of a joyless congregation of grey suits, you’re not alone, but you’ve still got the wrong idea.
Networking events can be both effective and fun – in fact, these two goals often go hand in hand.
With these tips, the next one you host could be the best your guests attend all year.
Synergizing Entertainment and Business Impact
Networking events are professional functions that people attend in order to get an advantage in the business world, and you should never forget that.
That said, networking events are also social functions, so having happy guests makes the entire event more effective.
Planning an ideal event that will fulfill both parameters requires careful planning from start to finish. To do it, you should:
Time It Carefully
The first step to a great networking event is knowing when to host it.
Events that are held in the evening are often attended by people who are exhausted from having been at work all day and can’t get much out of the proceedings due to their lack of energy – and that’s if those tired, stressed people even show up at all.
Weekend networking events are competing with many other potential activities your invitees could be doing. You can still pull off either one successfully if you’re really committed to the idea, but neither is ideal.
Instead, try choosing an early weekday time slot. Holding your event earlier in the day not only makes you stand out and reduces potential conflict with other plans, but also makes it more likely that you will have energized, engaged people in attendance.
To keep that momentum going, be sure to keep the total time frame for the event short; you shouldn’t need much more than an hour and a half at the most.
Make It Easy to Sign Up
It goes without saying that to have a successful networking event, you’ll need a fair number of people to actually attend it.
If you make it hard to sign up, though, you’ll lose plenty of people right from the start. You can avoid this by using technology to help keep things simple for you.
Automated registration processes (whether you run them through your website or something like a Facebook event interface) keep everything organized with little effort on your part and don’t ask too much of your invitees.
It’s also helpful to make the event free, since most people won’t turn down free things if they have even a mild level of interest in them; after all, they have nothing to lose aside from perhaps a bit of their time.
Make It Personal
The point of networking events is to form connections between people, and that should be reflected in how you plan yours. It shouldn’t be as informal as a gathering with friends, but it also shouldn’t look like an academic symposium. Keep the focus on bringing people together.
Make sure you leave time between any scheduled activities or events for people to interact naturally.
To do this, you’ll want to establish a relaxed setting with fewer formalities than your average workplace.
Choose an inviting location with just enough space for the number of people you’re expecting – it should look less like a board room and more like a place where you would hold a party.
You might consider providing food or drinks to your guests - though you may want to avoid serving alcohol without having a plan in place to deal with any potential problems if someone overindulges.
Coffee and perhaps some simple pastries is usually more than enough to please, particularly at morning events. Then, promote conversation and bonding as much as possible.
The goal should be for everyone who attends to come away from your event remembering names and faces as much as any industry-specific conversations that might be had.
Related: 5 problems in networking events, and how to avoid them
Coordinate Guest Activities
While you do want your guests to enjoy themselves, you also don’t want everything going off the rails either.
You’ll want to provide some structure to the event to keep things running smoothly, which means giving your guests things to do.
Activities that encourage interactions among the guests (such as Q&A sessions with prepared questions) can be particularly useful to get people talking, even introverts who would otherwise have trouble coming out of their shells.
Even one-way activities like a guest speaker can help give your guests something to talk about while they’re there.
You’ll find many lists of easy and inexpensive activity examples for networking events all over the Internet, so just choose the ones that work best for you and integrate them into your plans.
Consider offering prizes, too – they add a lot of fun to the proceedings and help motivate people to participate fully in the experience.
Group People Up
Looking out at a sea of colleagues at a networking event can be both disorganized and intimidating. You can help combat this problem by narrowing each person’s playing field a little bit.
Research shows that 97% of people prefer to be clustered in small groups (10 people or less) when face-to-face with others.
Arranging for your guests to group up like this can help them to feel more comfortable and more open to the enjoyment and forging meaningful connections.
The simplest way to do this is to ensure your event has seating arrangements that promote this type of interaction – say, several small round tables with perhaps six chairs around each.
A more considered approach is to match people up with like-minded people by comparing everyone’s answers to a short survey you hand out ahead of time. You obviously don’t want to restrict your guests’ freedom; you should make sure that the different groups have the opportunity to intermingle if and when they decide to do so.
Starting people off in a more intimate mini-environment simply helps them to get their bearings in a situation that might otherwise be too demanding to fully engage with.
Collect and Store Your New Data Properly
To get the most out of a networking event, you need to leave it with plenty of new contact information that you can put to work. In the long term, business cards are not going to cut it for this purpose.
They’re great tools, but let’s face it – they’re also easy to tear, smudge, get wet or even lose. Instead of relying on physical cards to store all the new contact information you’ve gathered after the event, make sure it goes right into your contact database or CRM system instead.
Not only will this make sure that none of your new contact information goes missing, but it will also make this information easier to sort through and use in the future.
Further, doing this will allow you to focus on enjoying yourself at the event, confident that you will be able to take care of your data needs later on.
Don’t forget that collecting contact data isn’t something you should only be doing with the fresh faces you see at your event. You will likely see some familiar faces in the crowd as well, and you should be getting their information as well. You might think you already know everything about them, but contact data is a dynamic thing.
30% of people change their email address every year – how do you know your old contact wasn’t one of them at one point? Seeing them in person gives you a chance to collect any updated data they might have for you and to update your records appropriately, keeping that connection alive.
This is part of the contact data quality management that you must do on a regular basis to keep your database information useful and valuable.
Networking events can start a relationship between you and a potential client or employee, but it usually won’t seal the deal for you.
In the sales world, only 2% of sales are made with customers who have only just made contact with a company, but 80% are made after 5 to 12 points of contact.
This means that you won’t see the true value of your networking event until you do the work to deepen the initial relationships you’ve made. Even if the event wasn’t your first time meeting most of the guests, some follow-up is in order.
There are many ways to do this depending on what resources you have available to you. The best way is usually to host a smaller, more intimate event for the choicest contacts you’ve acquired.
This can be relatively expensive, though, so it may not be an option for everyone. If there’s no room for that in your budget, a simple email can still accomplish a lot while requiring comparatively few resources from you – though you should still take care to personalize the message and refer to specific things you discussed with that person as much as possible.
Handwritten note cards provide a happy medium between these two options. No matter how you do it, the important thing is to signal to these people that you want the relationship to continue long after the event has ended.
Make the Most of Your Networking Events
Building relationships in your daily life can be an immensely pleasant and fulfilling experience, and there’s no reason why that can’t be the case at networking events as well.
As long as you follow the proper steps and keep the right perspective in mind, you don’t have to sacrifice fun to host an effective event.
Use it to your advantage instead and you’ll be able to forge profitable, professional bonds that stand the test of time.
We’ll be back soon with more tips for you, but in the meantime, download your checklist for networking events and consider joining your peers for more information on building relationships within your industry and the contact data that makes it all possible.
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Originally published Jan. 16, 2019, updated Feb. 12, 2020.