Networking. It’s one of those old school business words that brings up the image of stodgy executives sipping cocktails and exchanging tips on how to improve their golf swing.
But even though networking gets a bad rap, it’s a great way to expand your small business if you know how to do it in a unique, interesting and memorable way. “Inside of the box” networking normally has the same key components – meet new people, listen to a keynote speaker, listen to people talk about their businesses, etc. If you’re a regular at these events, you know that they can be a drag. It’s getting you out of the office or out from behind your computer – but what’s the point?
Networking doesn’t have to be this way! Outside of the box networking gets you connected with people in new ways. It creates those genuine connections that can make a major difference in your business.
Here are four ways to network outside of the box to make better connections.
1. Get out and get active.
Who says that networking has to take place in a drab conference room? There are tons of events going on in your city that would be a great place to find and connect with busy professionals just like you. Think about a hobby or activity you’d like to take up and then use Meetup or watch Groupon deals to find local events. Other stressed-out business owners and professionals and probably doing the same thing. Not only are you getting the opportunity to try something that you’ve always wanted to do, you’re making deeper and more lasting connections. In casual social situations, people are more likely to get into conversations and open up – which gives you a good opportunity to get to know contacts on a real level.
2. Invest time in a cause that you care about.
Volunteering puts you directly in touch with people who share the same values and passions – which can be a good foundation for working together or referring one another. Volunteer for an organization that you really care about. Find an animal shelter, non-profit organization or school where you can do some good. You’ll find new contacts and be making the world a better place at the same time. You may even be able to help your favorite charity with your business. Donate consulting time or manage a project pro bono and you’ll reap multiple benefits – new contacts, a project for your portfolio and contributing to a cause you care about.
3. Use “mixed media” to stand out.
It’s not uncommon these days to have entire business relationships over email and Skype. In fact, it’s so much of our modus operandi as entrepreneurs that we take notice when we get something in the mail or get a direct call. You can do some instant outside of the box networking by returning an email with a phone call. If you receive an email from a group or person you’d like to work with, find their phone number and get on the phone! Let them know you were in the office when you received their message and wanted to get a chance to chat. Not only does this make you stand out, it gives you insight into your contact. There’s only so much that be conveyed over email. In the same vein, you can send out a handwritten note to someone you’ve met at a local networking event to make a lasting impression. Mix up the media that you’re using to communicate and you’ll be networking outside of the box.
4. Get over your fear of public speaking.
At a typical networking event, you’ve got the attention of a handful of people for a few minutes at a time. But you can multiply that by thousands if you can become a speaker. Speaking in front of a local group is a terrific way to network and show off your expertise. No matter what you do, you’re an expert on something. There are dozens of groups in your area that need speakers. For 15 to 20 minutes you’ll have the opportunity to grab the entire of the entire room, increase your network and open up new opportunities.
5. Create something new.
Starting a project is not only beneficial for your business, but it can help you add new people to your network as well. You could build a useful tool, write a report or create a book that helps you connect with your target market. At the start of this type of project, you can interview experienced and successful people to either provide guidance or content. This leads to great connections that can open up new opportunities for you in the future.
Want some bonus points for outside of the box networking – start your own event! Chances are, there are a lot of people in your area who are ready to try something new. Look for opportunities to connect with other people in your area in new ways. For example, schedule a wine tasting with a local winemaker and send printed invitations to local small business owners. Not only will you be able to connect with new people, but you’ll give the winemaker exposure as well. Or start a “TweetUp” where you gather local Twitter followers together at venue to listen to a speaker or just hang out.
No matter what you do, don’t give up! Successful outside of the box networking means trying new things all of the time. The more you try, the more exposure you’ll be getting and the more opportunities you’ll have for building your small business.
Your turn! What unique networking ideas have you used in the past to expand your contact list? Share your strategies below.