Surviving Columbus’s Events Scene: A Fresh Approach to Networking

You probably hate doing it.

Going to events and forcing yourself to network is nerve racking. Do you have your elevator speech down? Will you be underdressed or overdressed? Do you have to speak in front of everyone or approach strangers, and which one is worse? Despite the imagery, you overcome inertia, but can’t seem to find success in your networking efforts.

You know the basics− that you need to make an impression and you want to be memorable, but not memorable in a negative way. We all know the individual who goes to every networking event and wants to sell us their exclusive product that will cure cancer or [insert similar claim here], and they’ll allow you to resell the product for an amazing opportunity that will lead to financial independence. My go-to response to these characters is that I just got an email from a Nigerian Prince who is going to send me $5 million once I wire him just $5,000, so I’m good with financial independence.

It usually elicits a laugh, but, seriously, you don’t want to push your product or service to people who are never going to buy from you. I know, I know, we all need to make connections and, to a greater extent, sales. (I have a mortgage payment, too.) But the blanket-the-room approach is flawed. Let me share with you a better way to network.

First, establish goals.

When I moved to Columbus, I must have attended every possible event that was open to the public. I wasn’t familiar with the city or what type of contacts I wanted to make. As a result, I started seeing some of the same people at every event and once I determined who I could best help, and vice versa, I asked those people which events I should be attending.

You probably don’t have as much free time as I did, so let me help you narrow it down. You will want to start by making logical, goal-oriented choices. If you are marketing home health care to a 65-plus age demographic, then a Columbus Young Professionals dinner probably doesn’t make much sense.

Second, find out what events people in your current network are attending. I do this by finding an event I want to attend and using social networking websites, like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, to ask if anyone I am connected with plans to attend.

Beyond that, it doesn’t hurt to broaden your horizons. Spending time searching for events and doing your homework can really pay dividends. Also, don’t be afraid of networking events that have a small charge (less than $20) at the door. Quite simply, it keeps the riffraff out and you have a higher probability of making connections that matter.

At the event, my approach is two-pronged.

The priority I put on each approach depends on the event. At some social events, such as Happy Hour Meetups or Meetups, there is a good chance I know most of the people in the room.  At those events, I acknowledge the people I already know, starting with people I haven’t seen in a long time and ending with those I’ve seen more recently.

It’s important you don’t solely concentrate on meeting new people. Pay respect to those connections you have already made and along the way, if one of those connections is talking to someone you haven’t met, it’s great to get a first person introduction. In fact, the first person introduction is the most credible way to meet new people.

Again, pay homage to those connections you already have. You don’t want anyone thinking they’re not important enough for at least a brief acknowledgment.

The second part of the two-pronged approach, much like cold calling and just as awkward, is the cold intro. However, you don’t want to pass on the cold intro. Some of the most valuable parts of my inner circle come from a past cold intro.

My approach starts by finding other attendees with whom I have something in common. I might start with people who are dressed in a similar fashion, which solves the dilemma of being over or underdressed.

A second approach is based on finding people in my age range. At an Ohio State University event, I noticed only one other person in my age range (the event was clearly marketed to undergraduate students) and she has become one of the most amazing connections I’ve made since arriving in Columbus.

Beyond those two ideas, try talking to the shy person in the corner or wait in line to interact with the most popular person in the room.

Find which methodology works for you.

As an added bonus, try finding a way to be memorable without being cliché. For example, I typically introduce myself as “Ryan Bauer,” using my full name which sounds awfully uppity and formal, but counters the fact that I almost never carry business cards and that my fashion sense can be described as “sloppy” (or perhaps just “food stains”). Find a minor weakness in yourself and tweak your personal brand image to balance it out.

Secondly, when people ask what I do, I typically say, “I give away free things for a living.” This is factual and so much more intriguing than, “I’m an independent engagement marketing consultant.” Your goal is to incite a conversation, not close the sale.

Let people get to know you. People buy from people they like and, to a greater extent, people they view as friends. Build that connection and soon enough, your connections will be interested in what product or service you work with and if it can help them.  From there, you’re on your way to sales nirvana!

What do you think? Am I on the money or have I missed the mark? What is your advice for networking success?

Networking photo by Adam Slane.