When you think of networking, do you think of slimy schmoozers pushing their business cards on everyone they encounter? That’s one kind of networking—but certainly not the only kind, and definitely not the most effective kind, especially for freelance designers.
Networking—connecting authentically and personally with real people—is still, hands down, the most effective marketing tool available. If you have the right (i.e. realistic) expectations—that it’s not a quick fix and that relationships take time to develop and require nurturing day in and day out—you may not need to do anything else to make sure you have a full pipeline to grow your business.
Why? Because in a service industry, people work with people. The stronger your connections are with prospects, clients, vendors, colleagues and even competitors, the more robust your network will be and the more enduring your business will be—especially in the 21st century.
This idea was echoed in a recent Big Think (www.bigthink.com) video interview with Sara Horowitz, founder and executive director of the Freelancers Union, a free membership organization that advocates for and provides important benefits for freelancers. “The person who thinks they’re on their own is the first person who will be extinct,” she says. “It’s biodiversity. It’s networks. It’s interconnection. That’s how you will get your work. That’s how you’ll send out your SOS. That’s how you’ll help your friends. That’s how, in the long run, you’ll do well.”
That means you have to build your network. You may have done that online. In fact, much of what we do online is considered networking, whether tweeting, pinning or posting photos and videos.
But no matter how often you connect with others screen-to-screen, it doesn’t compare to the impact of your presence in person. In other words, online networking can’t (and shouldn’t) replace traditional networking. It can, however, enhance it. In fact, if you’re a serious and ambitious freelancer, online networking will improve your in-person networking and thereby the solidity of your business. Here are some tips for networking in 2014 to get you started:
Online Networking In 1 week
So next time you find an event to attend, try these online tactics during the week before the event:
A week in advance: See who’s attending. Back in the 20th century, when you registered for an event, you had no way of knowing who else would be there. You’d have to take your chances and hope to find some prospects. Not so in the 21st century. One feature of online networking is that many event registration systems, like Evite and Meetup, allow you to see who else has RSVP’d. That way, you can choose which attendees you want to meet, and it’s not left to chance.
- Three days in advance: Research your prospects. In the 20th century, because you didn’t know who’d be there, you couldn’t do any effective research. That meant when chatting with a new prospect, you’d have to be nimble and spontaneous, thinking on your feet and asking questions without any preparation. Again, not so in the 21st century. Once you’ve chosen the top 10 people you want to meet, Google their names and prepare yourself for the conversations you want to have. Go with to the event with specific questions to ask, needs to fill or topics to discuss.
- Two days in advance: Connect with them. Not only were you in the dark about who’d be at an event in 20th century, you also couldn’t connect in advance. And again: Not so in the 21st century. Now, because of all the information available, there are multiple ways to reach out in advance and lay the foundation for a potentially fruitful connection. You can:
• Connect on LinkedIn. Because you are both attending the same event, you have a genuine reason to connect and a built-in opening to use. Simply write, “I see you’re attending the NJ Tech Meet Up next week. I am, too, and would love to connect and meet you there. I think we might be a good fit.” And choose “colleague” when asked how you know them.
• Start a discussion on LinkedIn. If the event or the group hosting the event has a LinkedIn Group, join it and use the opportunity of the upcoming event to initiate a discussion on a topic related to the event session or simply to ask who’s going. That way, you’ll already know a few people when you get there.
• Pre-tweet. Follow and then send a tweet to anyone you want to meet, especially the speakers. This establishes good will by increasing their visibility to your followers. In less than 100 characters, you can say, “Looking forward to meeting at NJ Tech Meetup. I’ll be there, too, and will say hello.”
• “Friend” them on Facebook or “Like” their FB page. Facebook is generally used more for personal interactions than for business. But it can’t hurt to connect there too, if it seems appropriate.
On the day of the event: Prepare your questions. Take a few minutes to sit quietly and think about your objectives for the event. Do you need new (more or better) clients? Feedback from people who would be prospects—that is, your own private focus group? Answers to vexing pricing questions? Other freelancers to sub-contract to? Resources to support your business, like an accountant or lawyer? All of this is possible through networking. If you know what you need and go out specifically looking for it, you’re much more likely to find it.
Each of these online efforts has the potential to give you a bit more mental real estate in the minds of your new networking contacts, whether they’re prospects, colleagues or vendors. The end result is twofold: When you all arrive at the event, you’ll feel better because you’re prepared, and you’re not going in cold. Plus, you’ll have made some actual connections to build on.
One very important byproduct of all of this preparation is ease and confidence. You’ll be so prepared that you’ll be able to walk up and introduce yourself to anyone. If you can’t find the people you’re looking for, ask the hosts to introduce you or at least help you find them.
And don’t forget the follow-up. These same tools and techniques can be used after the event just as effectively. Now, go get ’em!