If you run an offline business one of the best ways to source new leads and ultimately customers is to attend local networking events. These might be held by your local business chamber, bank or other business in your area. I’ve had great success sourcing business via events in the past and all of my very best clients have always been found via an initial face to face networking event.
There are many different types of networking events including events with speakers, speed networking, breakfasts, workshops and more..
Networking is also a great way for you to build confidence, refine your elevator pitch and motivate yourself to get out and grow your business. For anyone just starting out I challenge you to find a local networking event and attend. Don’t worry if you fall over your words, are nervous as heck and have no idea how to act. We were all there at one point and it gets easier the more often you attend. Don’t let a little anxiety and fear get in the way of building your business.
I was attending networking events for years before I decided run one of my own. This was by far the best decision I ever made. After I started to run my own free networking events I found that my conversion rates improved dramatically and the cost was negligible to my business.
Some of the reasons I think these conversion rates increased include:
- You are immediately perceived as an expert.
- You are giving people something for free that adds value.
- People like to reciprocate.
- It gives you a legitimate excuse to follow up post event.
I’ll run through these 4 points in detail but it’s the last one that I will focus most of my attention on.
- You are immediately perceived as an expert. There’s no better way to be seen as an expert than by speaking to a large group. Holding the attention of 50+ people while you talk to them over a PA system translates to instant credibility.
- You are giving people something for free that adds value. I run free events for local business people in Sydney, Australia. Attendees receive genuine value as they are able to grow their business networks at no cost. Providing something for nothing like this is the perfect way to kick off a new relationship.
- People like to reciprocate. Flowing on from my previous point, the fact that you have given someone something that they value helps the Law of Reciprocity come into effect. Bonza!
- It gives you a legitimate excuse to follow up post event. Did you identify the perfect prospect during your networking event. Well give them a call or follow up with another form of marketing. These leads are now warm (which means no more cold calling) and they will generally welcome the conversation. Just don’t wait too long before you call them. Strike when the iron is hot.
How to run your own networking event
Before you begin to even consider running your own networking event to act as a lead generator for your business make sure you have attended at least 5 other networking events held by other people. This will give you a head start on this process as well as helping to build your confidence networking. As an organiser you will need to lead by example to set the tone for your group, so it is vital that you have a handle on your skills networking.
Tip #1. Before you run out and start your own networking group make sure you attend a few others with the sole intent to see how they are run.
Great! Now that you’ve been to a few other local networking events you’ll have a better idea as to what works and what doesn’t. The next question to ask yourself is what type of event should you run?
The four most common types of events include:
- Breakfast networking.
- Events with Speakers.
- Speed Networking.
- Breakfast networking. One of the easier events to organise. Low in ongoing cost and can easily work with low numbers. I run breakfast events through Meetup.com and actually cold called a few local businesses to get the group off the ground. Most local cafes will welcome the trade, just make sure they have a spare that is reasonably private for your breakfast group. I run these for free and find that putting up a pay wall, even if it just covers the cost of food and coffee, really lowers attendance.
- Workshops. Running a workshop can be a hard event to get off the ground. I recommend introducing workshops to your networking group after you have a solid member base and reputation. Hiring a suitable venue will cost you a few hundred dollars but you might be able to find a cheaper alternative or maybe a JV partner with a boardroom for free. Should you charge for attendance? Personally I wouldn’t but I would make sure my content was full of affiliate offers that I would use to monetise the workshop.
- Events with Speakers. Another tough cookie to get off the ground. Venue costs, food and speaker costs mean that you will likely need to charge for tickets. Unless you have a solid reputation and member base this may be difficult to get off the ground. Save this for another day.
- Speed Networking. My personal favorite. Speed networking is fun, full of energy and free. Venue costs will generally be your only cost however keep an eye out for potential joint venture (JV) partners who would like the extra exposure to their business in exchange for a good sized boardroom. Keep it free and use a platform like Meetup.com to get your group off the ground.
Tip #2. Speed networking is by far the easiest type of event to get off the ground. Once you have an established speed networking group start introducing other types of events.
For the sake of this article I will concentrate on how you can start your own Speed Networking group and use this as your lead generator for your own business.
Using Meetup.com as your Networking Group Platform
I love Meetup. It does such a great job of automating the planning for your group that I now literally spend 20 minutes a month organising my networking group. All up you can have your Meetup group ready and running in under an hour.
Meetup is the world’s largest network of local groups. Meetup makes it easy for anyone to organize a local group or find one of the thousands already meeting up face-to-face. More than 9,000 groups get together in local communities each day, each one with the goal of improving themselves or their communities.
Once setup your Meetup group will grow organically with new members coming on board every month. My own experience has shown that as more members are added to your group the rate of new member sign ups also increases. The trick is to be patient and to provide a consistent experience to members.
Starting a Meetup group is easy. Just sign up for a free account and then click on the Start a Meetup Group located in the sites header. After this simply complete the following sections.
- Set your location.
- Add several keywords relevant to your new group (tip: type ‘networking’ in here).
- Accept the Meetup pledge.
- Create your group name.
- Add a detailed group description.
You will need to pay a very small fee for setting up the group which comes out to roughly $12 per month.
Your next step will be to create your first event. Please feel free to take a look at my own networking event description and pick and choose what you like from our group. The key here is to concentrate on what value the attendee will receive by attending. Never use an event description as an opportunity to push sell.
After you have setup your event description you will need to set a date. I always make a point of setting a date before I select a venue as it gives me a deadline to focus on. Have a look at what other networking events are currently running in your area and try to avoid running yours too close to these. Aim for your first event to run 4 weeks after you setup your group. This will give you ample time to find a venue and for your group to start growing.
Next it’s time to find a venue. You can often find a suitable venue by spying on your competition and seeing where they are holding events. When I first started I ran my events at a business center in downtown Sydney. This venue cost me $200 for four hours of use. Try your best to find a professional venue that is located centrally to your target market.
Now I realise that $200 per event can seem like a lot of money for a small one hour long networking event to some people. However if you are able to land one new client (think client lifetime value here) I am sure you will have covered the cost and then some. The good news is there is an alternative to paying for a venue each and every time. What you want to do is start talking to your event attendees, larger firms, serviced offices and maybe even your local business incubators about partnering with you. You will exchange exposure of their business to your networking group in exchange for a subsidized or free venue.
Tip #3. Try using LinkedIn to find a JV venue partner after your first event.
Your group is now setup. Congratulations, you’re well on your way to becoming the leader of your own community of business owners. Now go and spread the word and grow your group.
The three ways I initially grew my group included:
- Advertise the group via LinkedIn.
- Contact members of other Meetup networking groups.
- Contact your local business chamber and ask them to announce the group.
Running your Speed Networking Event
Hosting a speed networking event is easy and a lot of fun. Speed networking is just like speed dating but for business. Attendees spend a limited amount of time with a variety of partners, they talk about their respective businesses briefly and then move on to a new partner. Surprisingly it’s not about selling but about building relationships.
Tip #4. No one goes to a networking event to be sold to yet many people go to an event to try and sell something. Networking is all about building relationships you can leverage in the future. Keep it about lead generation and avoid the temptation to ‘sell’ on the day.
A typical speed networking session will run like this:
- 15 minutes of unsupervised generally networking while you wait for everyone to show.
- Give a brief introduction and outline the ‘rules of the game’.
- Keep time.
- Wrap up.
- 15 minutes of unsupervised generally networking while you wait for everyone to show. Traffic and late running meetings are just two reasons why someone might be running late. Don’t take this personally as ‘life happens’, just allocate a 15 minute window to meet and greet attendees as they turn up. Lead by example here and proactively work the room to make people feel comfortable and welcome.
- Give a brief introduction and outline the ‘rules of the game’. Gather everyone’s attention and introduce yourself and the group. Talk about the structure of your event and how it will run. I keep a brief bullet list handy:
- Hello and welcome
- Ice Breaker / Joke
- Who has been here before. Good to see you again. For everyone else I’d like to run through structure of event.
- 4 minute rounds / 2 minute halves
- Bells. One at half round and one at full
- End of round 10 seconds to move to next partner
- 30 minutes at the end of event for general networking
- Put your hand up for water and we’ll come to you
- Line up in equal distant rows
- Moving around. One side stays still and the other side rotates clockwise
- Say hello to you first partner and lets get started
- Start! At this point the room will fill with noise. It’s important to start keeping time, I use my iPhone but most phones will have some type of countdown timer. I try to keep the actual speed networking session to under 45 minutes with rounds lasting 4 minutes long each. The reality is that some people may take their time moving on to their next partner or you might be on water duty at the end of a round so don’t worry too much about ending rounds on 4 minutes sharp, just keep them as equal in length as possible. Attendees should be able to connect with 10 or 11 people on the day.
- Keep time. At the end of each 4 minute round you will ring a bell and one row of attendees will move clockwise. One person on the end will need to move across the room to the other end of their line.
- Wrap up. At the end of the session gather everyone’s attention and thank them for coming. Let them know that there is still another 30 minutes available for general networking and then go and work the room. It’s a good idea at this point to run some type of competition as a way to harvest business cards en masse. ‘Place your card in this bowl for a chance to win…’.
Make sure you bring a bell or other noisemaker to use to gain attention, also pre prepared name badges help and also work as a ‘roll call’ for the event. Meetup has a great internal name badge system you can use to print these out.
Tip #5. Consistency is important for group growth. Your group will grow slowly and speed up over time if you provide a consistent event schedule and experience.
I find a monthly schedule works best. Now go add your best prospects to your CRM and follow up, follow up, follow up. You have just been positioned as an expert in your prospects eyes so it’s time to work this to your advantage.
Over to you
I took my Meetup group from zero members to 300 in 8 months. In this time event attendance went from 12 at my first event to over 50 regular attendees. I’m sure this number will keep growing as group membership grows. I invite you to start your own group and please use any of my own Meetup group setting to help get you going.
What do you think? Would this work as a lead generator for your business? Do you have any specific questions about any part of this process? Let me know by leaving a comment below.