Social distancing may have disrupted the classic avenues of networking like trade shows and happy hours, but it hasn’t spelled its end — many business leaders are eager to find ways to adapt to the new normal of networking.
If you’re one of those leaders looking to meet potential vendors, suppliers and other industry players, experts recommend focusing your attention on building on existing relationships, virtualizing events and getting creative.
1. Build on existing relationships.
If you spent the beginning of quarantine focused on operations, now's a good time to come up for air and reconnect with your network.
Keith Emmer is the owner of Startegix, a public relations consultancy in New York City. He also organizes a networking group that has about 70 members. Emmer suggests spending this time “cementing existing relationships.” Many people are worried about the present and future, so this can be a good time to foster the camaraderie you already have.
Ask your current contacts if there's anything you can do for them — and if you need help, this would be a good time to bring that up. This simple action may remind a cooled contact to keep you top of mind, and may end up creating a revenue-making opportunity further down the road.
Reconnecting and establishing a deeper connection with someone you already know can help you meet new people as well. Maybe they know someone they think you should connect with, or maybe you noticed they're 1st degree contacts with someone you've been hoping to contact on LinkedIn. This is especially true as more and more people have been defaulting to digital channels to nurture their network. Ask for an introduction, Emmer says.
“That tends to start it off stronger than if I connected with someone at something like a trade show anyway," Emmer says. "That way I both keep close to the people I already network with, and I can continue to grow my network.”
2. Host a virtual happy hour with people in your industry.
Lizbeth Cardoza is the CEO and co-founder of Tiny Milkshake Media, an animation and creative content studio in Hoboken, New Jersey. After lockdowns started, Cardoza lost all of her animation and video production business "within days."
While we have certainly lost some of the spark that happens with face-to-face interaction and networking, it only takes a little creativity and leadership to transform digital networking into a huge asset.
—Jessica Bedenbaugh, marketing, PR and communications consultant
"My anxiety hit new levels while I tried to figure out how we’d deal with the financial blow,” she says.
Cardozo decided to coordinate a virtual “happy hour” for women in her industry. She saw it as a way to share stories, offer support and solve problems when possible and commiserate when they couldn’t. She posted about the happy hour on several Facebook groups.
“I thought I'd get, maybe, 20 or 30 responses. I ended up with over 300 women responding,” Cardozo says. She's been hosting weekly virtual happy hours ever since, and has landed leads that turned into work producing animated content for companies because of it.
"It's definitely helping me with outreach and brand awareness, which wasn't the original goal," Cardozo says. "The women on all the calls are incredibly supportive, encouraging and completely open to helping each other. They love that I'm building a directory of all the women we meet on each call, so we can refer to it in case we need each other services or advice."
3. Incorporate creativity into your virtual meetings.
Pre-lockdown, networking events had an air of entertainment to them: You could take people out to dinner or host an interactive activity. You can still bring that level of delight to virtual networking events.
“While we have certainly lost some of the spark that happens with face-to-face interaction and networking, it only takes a little creativity and leadership to transform digital networking into a huge asset,” says Jessica Bedenbaugh, a marketing, PR and communications consultant in Portsmouth, Virginia.
She suggests sending something ahead of the meeting. That could be a prototype of a product you’re discussing, or a dozen cupcakes from your client or vendor’s area of town.
“It supports a small business, shows that the executive is thinking of the client's community beyond just the calendar invite and adds some panache,” Bedenbaugh says.
You can also offer office hours. "It's a commitment to be online for a set time on set days and available to individuals," Bedenbaugh explains. "For example, an executive could commit to being on Skype every Tuesday morning from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., or a senior vice president of human resources could commit to a Zoom Room every Thursday from 2 to 4:30 p.m.”
Some business owners are hosting office hours on Instagram Live, talking at length about a specific area of expertise with their audience either by themselves or with another business owner. These activations foster thought leadership and, if done with a fellow entrepreneur in a related industry, can deepen your connection and plant the seeds for future collaborations. You may also see some cross pollination of each other's audiences, potentially meeting new customers and clients through Live.
While none of this is easy, look at the bright side: At least everyone is trying to figure out how to stay close while being apart. That, right there, gives you something in common to discuss when you're networking.
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