Definitions: making use of meetings with other people involved in the same kind of work, in order to share information, help each other etc.

Networking, as described in the above definition, requires interaction with an extended group of people and this implies those outside of your normal groups of communication. They survive on interaction within the context of relationship (business) development and interest and highlight the requirement for mutual support. There is a point to note here; why are you networking?

I have to confess that I am not a natural networker. I have been to many networking events in the past and can say without fear of contradiction that I found them intrusive and at times quite desperate. Invariably they were gatherings of people touting business cards and hawking products and services; office furniture salesmen trying to sell desks to home-based life coaches and telephony reps pushing cheaper calls to advertising agents. In addition to these hardy souls, most of the other attendees seemed to know each other already and be chatting idly, munching on the slightly curled up range of sandwiches and canapés.

Networking groups that abound these days have developed this basic theme but, in my experience, not by much!. I have no problem with informal meeting and chats, in fact, I genuinely enjoy them (well most of the anyway!) especially if I am not required to pay for the honour! If I could guarantee that I was not going to be sold at or that I did not have to leave the event with however many new orders scribbled on the back of my collection of business cards I would generally relish the opportunity to learn and build relationships.

For me, business is about relationships. Relationships with your investors, employees, customers, suppliers, community and, slightly more abstractly but no less important, the environment. Your entire stakeholder community, in fact. Indeed, in these times of increasing competition and decreasing opportunities that offer a tangible mirror to “austerity”, there is another an key relationship that requires managing. The relationship with your self. This means your authentic self.

Managing relationships by networking is essentially an opportunity for you to learn, gain contacts, pass on expertise and promote your unique business proposition (and more). This holds true whether the networking is undertaken directly or using the plethora of online and social networking tools and sites. Essentially, this development reflects a fundamental change in the way that we can connect with our stakeholders but it is important to understand that this is only a development of tools, an alternative to meeting face to face. The principles remain unchanged.

Bringing these two aspects of networking seems to me to be the key to success. It is the use of an appropriate combination of remote and face-to-face activity that makes networking effective and, dare I say it, beneficial to your business; a strategy that combines the two aspects. Random internet networking is to me as painful, time consuming and ineffective as random network eventing. If that is your “bag” then all well and good and I wish you all the best but in general terms I advise being as diligent and discrete with internet networking as you are with face-to-face events and ensure that you get your (time and) money’s worth.

So, some points to consider:

How much time will it take?
How much time do you have? There is no question that if you are the kind of person who cannot hear a email ping into your inbox without looking at it immediately you should think carefully about adding social networking for your business to the mix.

Decide on the best site(s) for you and your business
New sites appear every day. Even the long established sites change regularly. When you decide which ones to use to start your answer to the “time” question might help you decide what else you do.

Start a conversation
Social media generally – including social networking, blogs, forums etc anything where people can contribute and respond – depends on conversations.

Build a community
Building a community whose members know and trust you can hugely boost your own and your business reputation. One very important thing to remember is that we all like when someone gives us something for free.

Take the conversation offline when you can
We get far more sense of how we can get on with people when we can see and hear them. Social networking should be used in addition to – not instead of – your other networking activities!

Be in it for the long run
No matter how much – or how little – you decide to do you need to decide to stick with it. Just as you will not have built your current network overnight neither will using social networking move it to a new level quickly.

Markets have changed and networking (a method by which you can access companies and individuals within these markets) is changing. Essentially, the traditional market place/square is no longer the only time and place to network as was the case from medieval times to the 19h century. Technological developments in communications and logistics meant that our potential market (and networking) opportunities grew hugely. In the 20th and 21st century this has, and will continue to, rise and grow. Stakeholders can be next door or across the globe. Our markets today are disparate geographically but not necessarily practically. The rise of such companies as Amazon and Google are testament to this. Networking nowadays has infinite potential whether you leave your home or not so my final point is this, always, always be authentic online and offline – you never know when you will meet again!

Extracts taken from “An A-Z Introduction to Ethiconomics” by Philip A Birch

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