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Today I had a revelation.  It happened over coffee (actually a Chai Latte but that’s not important) with a digital media specialist that I met online.  We’d tweeted and retweeted for a while and decided it was time to find out what we both really did so the official ‘coffee’ was scheduled.  We got to talking about how social media works best when used as a part of an active marketing strategy and plan.  We went on to talk about creating a networking strategy as part of this, that combines both online and offline techniques.

But then I realized something… we were actually practicing what we preach.  We had combined online and offline marketing.

There is no excuse for turning up to the networking ‘party’ (whether on or off-line) unprepared.  If you want to get the most from it then you need to recognize it as a powerful tool in the marketing mix and give it as much thought as other marketing activity.  You wouldn’t decide to create a website and then not do any preparation or writing before sending it live, would you?  (Well, some might, but the theory stands.)

Networking should be afforded planning, care and objectives.  You need to work out what you want to achieve, who you want to talk to and then plan, plan, plan.  That means finding out about your targets, working out how you’re going to get to talk to them, deciding what you want to achieve from this contact, and then, finally, deciding how you’re going to follow up and measure success/failure.

You’ll note, in the above paragraph, I haven’t said anything that wouldn’t apply to both on and offline networking. It’s easier to be disciplined about networking offline because it invariably costs money (or at least more time) to join the group and turn up to meetings.  Online networking is largely free and that can lead to slightly less discernment in choice of approach.  This is not a good thing.

So, how does it all work and what tips can I offer for your business?

1.     I would start by looking at your marketing plan as a whole.  What have you agreed that you want to achieve?  Use this to work out who you want to meet through networking and what you are trying to achieve.  This will give you a platform for deciding how you are going to use networking to achieve these goals.

2.     Prepare your 1-minute elevator pitch. Always try to ensure you talk about both what value you can bring (rather than just what you do) and also what you’re looking to achieve from the group.

3.     Keep your goals focused.  Don’t go into networking (whether literally or virtually) wanting to talk to everyone.  Decide on a narrow focus with a realistic end point.

4.     First look at offline networking and establish whether there are any groups that fit the bill for ‘getting to meet the right people’. These people might be referrers or potential clients.  Talk to peers and see where they recommend.

5.     Plan your strategy for these meetings.  Agree your offering, your message and your measure (ROI).  Make sure you’ve got all the tools you need for this – business cards, leaflets, notepad etc.

6.     After each meeting, test your achievements against these goals and plans.  Revise them for the next meeting if necessary.

7.     Plan out your follow up immediately after each meeting.  That might mean emailing to pick up on a lead or to add value with a helpful article.  It might be passing on a contact or introducing someone.  For every business card you receive, you should plan some form of follow up contact.

8.     Now look at online networking.  Apply the same process… Literally the same process.

9.     Now step back and look at all networking together. How can you use existing activity it to support other networking?  Can you develop relationships online and then arrange to meet them?  Can you meet people at a face-to-face event and develop the relationship online?  Can you promote some of your offline networking via online methods?  Plan out a whole strategy.

10.  Look at the rest of your marketing plan and see how this can be used to support and develop your networking.  Do you have a blog?  Should details be on your business card or your email footer?  Do you have a newsletter that you could add people to?  Do you have all the materials you need to take along?  Are you targeting specific people for a sector or service development focus?

I’ll let you into a secret, now.  I hate networking.  It scares me and I worry that my brain is about to dry up and I’ll have nothing to say… people will think I’m utterly dull and that I know nothing about marketing.  But I’ve taken my time and followed my own rules.  The planning gives you a sense of focus and drive… most importantly it gives you a way to measure success and that builds confidence.