Most small businesses find new customers by networking.

Like most things, some ways of networking work better than others!

You just pitch up and sell your stuff to anyone who’ll listen, because we’re all there to network right?

You only have to put yourself in the position of the person being sold to to understand why this is the least effective way to build a great network!

Ann Hawkins, a reluctant networker and founder of Drive, the Collaborative Network, answers questions and shares her tips for building a great network by combining on-line and face to face networking in a seamless process that is about collaboration and support.

Getting started

When Martyn Sibley decided that he wanted to leave his full time job and start his own business he spent three hours a night, for two years, building his on-line network. Six years later he was voted No 3 in the Power 100 list and is a major influencer in his field with frequent TV and radio appearances and paid speaking gigs at major events all over the world. (He even has an agent … )

There is no quick way to build a solid, trust based network but there are good habits to adopt that will help to grow it consistently.

Good habits to adopt:

  1. Share other people’s stuff as much as your own. If you help other people, they’ll help you.
  2. Show up regularly, not just when you’ve got something to promote – show up to build relationships and to help other people to connect.
  3.  Before you go to a face to face event, research and connect with the people who will be there. Get an idea of the person behind the business, their values, interests and their extended network. It makes the meeting much more meaningful.
  4. When you meet someone (on-line or face to face) connect with them on Twitter & LinkedIn. Find out if they’ve got a FB Page and if they have, like it. In each instance, start a conversation.
  5. Don’t be all business. People connect with you, and are more likley to buy from you, when they share your values and interests.

Q. I have a large number of contacts but I’m rubbish at staying in touch with them. What’s a good way of keeping track of your network, in terms of keeping up with folks over time?

Ann Hawkins You can’t have a meaningful relationship and understand how each person relates to the others, with more than 150 people (see Dunbar’s number) so choose the most important / useful ones and work on those. If your motivation is to learn more about them, be genuinely interested in them and connect them to others it gives a different perspective and reason for developing the relationship.

A CRM is useful and many of them now will fill in social contact info, so for things like events that can be quite good. However, the relationships in a CRM are all one way and individual – from you to them. In a network, you’re helping others to build relationships and that makes you a useful / valuable person to know, so others seek you out.

Two of the things that need to be present to build a great network are trust and reciprocity. It can’t all be about you!

Q. What about mailing lists?

Ann Hawkins Giving people a reason to stay in touch with you and inviting them to sign up to your mailing list is the best way ever to keep in touch but its still only one way – you to them.

Never, ever, EVER add people to your list just because your connected to them on a social network. (I don’t really need to say that, do I? Judging by the number of lists I get added to by LinkedIn connections, yes, I do!)

Q. How much do you need to trust that other people’s stuff is any good before you share it? I’ve met people I really like and I want to support, but I haven’t actually experienced their service or have evidence they are any good! I can research them, but how deeply? Or is that not what is important here?

Ann Hawkins It’s vitally important to only recommend things you believe in. Once you’ve built trust you don’t want to risk losing it. I agree that we all need someone to take a chance on us when we’re starting out but I’d always do some homework first! It’s generally quite easy to check people’s credentials on-line. If you do promote or recommend someone ask for feedback from people who have worked with them.

Q. What proportion of your time would you put into dedicated network building, Ann? (Assuming one is an established micro business)

Ann Hawkins Face to face networking is obviously more time consuming so it’s important to make the most of that time by researching and connecting with people on-line before the event. Don’t wait until you get there to try and find the people you’re most interested in. After the event you can actively maintain and build the relationship on-line – it can turn a very business-like connection into a fun, social one where you get a much deeper understanding of people’s values and also see who is in their extended network. Once you’re established, a few minutes a day on each of your chosen platforms is enough to keep building your network – but it has to be about conversations and sharing other people’s content not just pushing out your own.

Where does your target market hang out?

Q. How do you identify the best network events to attend so as not to waste time and effort at events riddled with other consultants and/or advisors all trying to sell themselves? Getting away from the serial and very boring networkers who only seem to push themselves and selling, selling and selling, can be problem!

Ann Hawkins I’d never go to anything where I couldn’t check out the attendance list first. (Or ones that ask everyone to introduce themselves with an elevator pitch, or those that practice “exclusions” or “competitor lock outs”!) However, there’s no reason to avoid events with competitors – people will buy you on your values. It’s always about how you interact with people first. Drive is built on the philosophy that collaboration will benefit more people than competition and this is proving to be true in the number of collaborations that crop up all the time and in the genuine, wonderful way new people are welcomed to the group by people in the same type of business.

Q. Going back to Martyn’s 3 hours a night for 2 years building a network – how much time (how often/how long) do you recommend setting aside every week to build your network? Or maybe it’s better expressed as a % of time spent on your business?

Martyn Sibley I think it comes back to strategy. Who are your customers and how are they best reached? If research shows social media is the best marketing channel, you just do as much as you can. The more time on it, the quicker you’ll get there. Not to say going slow is a bad thing. That also depends on the priorities and strategy.

Ann Hawkins  If your target market is larger organisations, corporations or members of the public you won’t find them at small business networking events, but you will find them on-line, in professional or special interest groups.

Twitter is especially good for interest groups and influencers. Use hashtags and Twitter searches to find the right people. You can have conversations with almost anyone on Twitter without any barriers! Once you’ve got some quality (it’s never about quantity!) you’ll find it grows exponentially. People you don’t know will find you because of something someone else has said or shared. Be interesting and useful and people will refer you to their wider network.

It can be harder to make connections on LinkedIn but a good tip is to find the people you want to connect with and see if they’re on Twitter. Connect with them on Twitter first and they’re more likely to accept you on LinkedIn.

Share, share and share some more!

Ann Hawkins I can’t stress enough how important it is to support other people in your network. If you think no-one notices that you don’t share their content (where appropriate to your followers), they really do and so do the many, many lurkers that you may not even be aware of! Only turning up when you’ve got something to promote will get you ignored.

Don’t support other people in order to get kudos or for some fake karma. Just do it because you can. Even if nothing comes of it, you’ll feel good because you’ve helped someone.

It’s also important to be a fully rounded human being, not a business automaton. Being social (not too personal!) is what encourages connections. People will be attracted by your values and interests, even if they’re not an obvious prospect for your business and then they share and recommend you to their wider network.

There is no quick fix or fast track way to build a network. If you have interesting stories to tell people will connect with them, but never expect an instant hit, it just doesn’t happen, especially on social channels where it’s much more of a drip feed process. Networking is a constant activity, It’s like so many aspects of business development, it’s easy to get disheartened by networking, but if you keep going there’s immense value to be gained on lots of levels.

The other thing that is sometimes overlooked is the fun you can have with on-line networking! Some people who rarely speak in a face to face situation really show their sense of humour on line – as we know from this group! When you’re having fun and building trust your network will be its most valuable!