Networking events in the UK are commonplace; in fact, they’re more or less everywhere. Thanks to social media and other platforms, it’s easier than ever before to set up, plan and run networking events for professionals in your sector. But how do you pull off a successful one?
State the overall purpose of the event
Ensure to clarify the reason why the event is taking place, says Georgie Kemp, of marketing agency Impression. This could be a chance to mingle with like-minded professionals within your niche sector, to discover potential business partners/ investors for your business idea, or to celebrate the opening of a new office with staff and clients.
‘This is arguably the most important part of the organising process, due to segmenting your audience to be invited, or to accurately target who may benefit from this event in due course,’ says Kemp.
Organise events that are easy for people to get to
Ofer Yatziv, event professional at Better Venues says, ‘I’ve been to weekday evening networking events that drag on for three to four hours. Frankly, they’re a waste of time. Who’d want to stand in a room for several hours after a long day at work? Everyone’s tired. No one listens.
‘Instead, make the time and length of your event easy for people to fit around their (probably) very hectic lives.’
Yatziv says that one of the best he’s seen is those organised by the Content Marketing Association; not strictly networking events, but training sessions that allow casual time for networking. ‘What I liked is that the events take place first thing in the morning and are designed as ‘breakfast meet-ups’ – you go to a venue, have some breakfast, chat to some like-minded souls then sit down for three short 15-20 minute talks, followed by a brief Q&A session.’ All done and dusted in about an hour and a half and you can then go and get on with your day –it was really near a tube station too, he adds.
“Networking is about developing trust and credibility; not about selling”
A networking event that takes place in most cities, is coordinated by Women in Tech. The event allows an excellent and relaxed learning environment straight after work and provides dinner (especially catering for vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free) and drinks – all for free. This event takes place once a month, giving all young professionals, no matter the gender something to look forward to due to varying between inspiring talks, quickfire chats, workshops and social events regarding all things tech.
‘When organising a networking event, keep the needs of your attendees uppermost in your mind at all times,’ Yatziv says. ‘Make it as easy as possible for them to attend. That way, you’re more likely to have a high number of attendees, and they’re more likely to want to come back to the next one.’
Keep it personal
Even if your networking event grows and grows and more people start attending, it’s important you keep things personal. Part of the beauty of a networking session is seeing a host of familiar faces, as well, of course, as some new ones. One thing begets another, and the more people you get to know, the better opportunities will arise for yourself and your business. Try and speak to everyone, remember as many names as you can, thank them for coming, say goodbye and connect with them on social media. Keep the conversation active and ongoing in between the sessions.
Develop a familiar format
Familiarity is useful when it comes to networking events; the same structure means regulars know the score, what to bring to a networking event, how things run, and makes it easy for newcomers to get to grips pretty quickly. If your networking event is designed to get people mingling, drinking, talking and connecting, then you need a format of some kind. Here are some ideas:
- A really formalised event, in a corporate meeting space and where people speak at specific times
- One or two guest speakers followed by networking
- Training sessions with time for networking built-in (like the breakfast meet-ups mentioned above)
- Really casual meet-ups, such as in the pub after work.
If you’re considering a ‘keep it loose’ approach, I’d warn against it. A networking event can be casual, but it needs some kind of structural base to facilitate discussion.
Automate the registration process
If your networking event is a large one, you’ll no doubt need to manage the numbers. Automating the necessary but rather time consuming registration progress will save you time and also make it easier for attendees to sign up. Eventbrite is a great platform for creating events and managing attendees; it allows people to pre-register, it’s quick and easy for them and it allows you to get an idea of how many people will be coming.
Spend time picking the right venue
The venue is one of the most important aspects of a networking event. It’ll make up the largest chunk of your budget (unless you’re hiring Richard Branson as a guest speaker) and it’ll set the overall tone, mood and direction of the event itself, so it’s crucial to pick the right one.
Budget will probably be your first focus point. If you’re on a very, very limited budget, consider the local pub. After all, it’s a networking event, right? People are probably looking for somewhere relaxed and casual to shoot the breeze. If you want to build in some talks or training, have a look and see if your council or local libraries hire out rooms for free or on the cheap.
Otherwise, consider hiring formal event spaces; pick one in a central location and look out for great extras, such as catering facilities and onsite technical help.
Market and promote the event (and start early)
It’s not enough to just set up the event. The hard work is really in marketing and promoting it. If your event is large in scale, consider hooking-up with commercial partners who might be able to sponsor the event and promote it to their customer base.
If your event is smaller in scale, harness the many marketing tools that are at your disposal, from social media and paid search, to blog posts and digital PR and outreach. Consider setting up an email newsletter too, a great way to keep people informed about what’s going on. And start early. Planning marketing takes time and preparation. Start it as soon as you can and execute it to the full.
It’s really important that you keep the conversation going after a networking event. What can you do to get more out of it? Continue the discussion online – try setting up a LinkedIn group where attendees can post questions and interact. Perhaps some tangible business opportunities cropped up; why not schedule some meetings and kickstart a business relationship?
Send out any relevant information from the event too, such as speaker’s talks and contact details. Create a community; go out and attend other people’s events, then start the promotion for your next networking session.
Jonathan Hamilton, executive director of BNI in Surrey gives his two approaches for successful networking on the delegate side.
If you’re a delegate, there are two approaches to networking you can either go for building a wide network of more superficial contacts that gets you visibility, or go deep and build meaningful connections with people that you can really trust and try to meet on a regular basis.
Small business owners really need to do the latter. Yes, they want to reach a lot of people, but what’s more valuable is building deep trust and long-term support that can come from attending networking events regularly and really getting other entrepreneurs to trust you.
- Take an altruistic approach. How can you help someone else? Who do you know that you can introduce to them? Follow those principles and you’ll find the favours you do for others will be repaid many times over.
- Networking is about developing trust and credibility; not about selling. So many business owners make the mistake of overtly pitching to someone rather than showing an interest in them and trying to find some common ground – it’s about farming, not hunting.
- Social media is fantastic for boosting the potential of face-to-face networking. LinkedIn is basically a huge global online networking event and people need to remember that the same offline networking etiquette rules apply. Twitter is great because it removes the traditional gate keepers and allows you to reach out to people in similar industry that are otherwise unavailable. You can get to A-list celebrities and influencers if you play the game well.
- Regardless of whether you are networking online or face to face, the same three ground rules always apply: Show a genuine interest, always try to give back and never overtly sell.
Networking is extremely beneficial for both the attendees who are making invaluable connections and can also enhance your personal career and business through thought leadership. By planning and hosting a successful networking event, you’re able to build relationships with professionals within your area and advise them on others to speak to in your qualified network.