“Arrrrgghh! Networking!” I hear you cry. “I hate the thought of pretending to enjoy nauseating pan-fried quail bladder and artichoke canapés whilst Rupert thrusts his business card at me. How do you do? Lovely to meet you (whoever you are)”.
No, no, no – that is NOT networking. Networking is walking into a room (virtual or real) and asking yourself “how can I help every single person in here?” Networking is helping others as much as you can without any thought for personal gain. It’s about thinking ‘who would find this piece of data useful or beneficial’.
In this blog we’ll discuss what a network (and networking) is (and isn’t); have a brief look at some etiquette; and assess ‘what’s in it for me’ before offering the ‘Top 7 Tips’ on networking for the freelancer.
A network for the freelancer
Your network is a ‘living entity’ that needs stimulation and nurturing – leave it to fester and will simply curl up and die.
Building and maintaining an effective network need not be burdensome or time-consuming; it can be as simple as dropping your contacts a regular email – asking after their news on family, personal and business matters, before letting them know what you’re currently doing. Not only does this keep you in touch with colleagues, friends and future clients – it also makes that phone call to ask a favour easier if you’ve made contact previously without making a request for help.
A freelancer’s network can be readily divided into:
- Associates or colleagues;
- Those who can influence your business now;
- Those who may be able to influence your business in the future.
They’re all equally as important – but how you interact and keep contact with them will be subtly different; you’ll be asking your friends/associates about their family and for ‘a bit of gossip’ perhaps – whereas you’ll be asking more business-oriented questions of those who may influence your business.
Effective networking is the sharing of the right information (or the provision of assistance) to the right people at the right time without a thought for personal gain.
What networking isn’t
Networking definitely isn’t the hard sell, or boring everyone you meet with how brilliant you are. Many people act like Harrier Pilots when they are networking – “anyway, enough about you…let’s talk about me”. How do you know you’re talking to a pilot? Trust me – he’ll tell you.
Effective networking is not throwing yourself into every available event you can find either. I’ve had invites to join ‘Networking Chapters’ (whose very name conjures up all kinds of masonic images); but they’re not right for me at all. Although such events can be highly beneficial for some, networking is not pitching up with as many business cards as your pockets will allow – trying to gain as many entries in your ‘contacts folder’.
Networking is not (always) cocktail parties.
So what’s in it for me?
As we discussed in ‘Social Media for the Freelancer’, the benefit of networking is to enhance brand awareness, whilst building your reputation as a ‘go-to person’. Social Media is a fantastic and rapid means of sharing knowledge with your network and should be exploited to its full potential.
Networking is putting yourself out there – shaking hands with new people; both virtually and in the flesh – and helping them to meet their goals as much as you can. Be free with your time and energy – and here’s the game-changer… reciprocity and selfish altruism.
The power of reciprocity is much better explained by Robert Cialdini is his book Influence: The Power of Persuasion – but by being genuinely altruistic, the power of reciprocity means that you are guaranteed ‘favours in the bank’ for the future – without ever having to ask for it. So by being selfless with your time and knowledge you are guaranteed to reap the fruits of your labours in the future (which makes it kind of selfish).
This selfless art of networking; when practiced honestly and whole-heartedly will furnish your contacts with the knowledge and assistance they need whilst boosting your reputation as a guru in your field of expertise. Moreover – those you assist will never tire of telling others who ‘pointed them in the right direction’; it’s a human thing – we can’t help ourselves.
Top 7 tips for networking
1. Have a network database and log. Although the groundwork for this task can be time-consuming, it only needs to be done once a year. Divide your database/spreadsheet into the categories above; use a column for their email address, one for date sent, and one for their response (or lack of – see below). Copy and paste contacts’ emails into your chosen calendar app as individual ‘events’ (with a reminder set) for a time when you should be able to send an email without distraction. When your reminder appears just click on the email hyperlink and send them a message!
You should aim to contact your entire network at least 3-times a year, so you should set the number of daily ‘events’ accordingly; deciding whether you are going to write these emails on weekdays, weekends, or a combination of both. Remember to be flexible, however – it’s pretty pointless sending someone an email asking after their news if you only spoke last week!
2. Prune your network. If you haven’t heard back from a contact (whether they be friends or potential clients) after 3 attempts, remove them from your database. Be bold – you’re wasting your time sending them regular correspondence. They’ll still see your updates on Social Media sites.
Pruning helps the plant grow new shoots – and as well as removing dormant contacts, you should de disciplined to add your new contacts to your database and schedule.
3. Be selective with your attendance at ‘Networking Events’. I’m fairly sure you could attend at least one of these a week just in your locale. Do try them – but limit yourself to an absolute maximum of 3 visits if you feel your not engaging with others in your genre. After 3 visits you’ll be able to assess whether it’s the same people selling the same wares (that you’re probably not buying – ever).
From experience, a lot of these events are B2B (Business to Business) SMEs or local service providers. After my third meeting with the same dog-walker, chimney sweep and guitar tuner; none of whom gave me any indication that they remembered talking to me (not sure whether that says more about me), I knew that a particular event was highly unlikely to yield representatives from the world of aeronautical engineering. This is not a slur on the attendees to that event; as everyone I met was utterly charming and engaging – it just wasn’t relevant to my business at the time; and I certainly wasn’t relevant to theirs.
4. Don’t get me started on ‘Speed Networking’. Enough said, fellow freelancer?
5. Share interesting articles, news and opportunities. If you found it interesting and relevant, then share it with others. This can be as straightforward as posting a link to the article or opportunity on Social Media; but often you’ll discover a nugget that a certain someone will really value. By all means share this on Social Media as well – but take the time to send it to that certain someone with an accompanying and personal note.
In the past I have come across a business opportunity that (just) fell outside of my portfolio of services. Instead of ignoring it and moving on, I actually sent it to a (friendly) competitor. Guess what happened a few months later…
6. Contribute to and engage with forums. Linked In is perfect for submitting articles and contributing to discussions in Groups pertinent to your specialisation. This is an outstandingly effective way to grow your network, as you’ll quickly connect with fellow contributors.
Use your online profiles to your full advantage. You may well have your own limited company, but don’t use ‘Director at Insertyoursurname Consultancy’ as your professional statement or job title – be different; be bold. In the past I’ve used ‘Revolutionary Supplier of World Class Engineers’ and more than a few members of online forums asked me ‘what made my services revolutionary?’ I’m so glad you asked…*insert elevator pitch and link to your website*.
7. Listen. You all know the ratio of ears to mouth, and should apply the same ratio to listening and talking when networking. With the exception of lectures and seminars, you’re highly unlikely to find yourself in a room with 50 other like-minded and skilled professionals. How dull would that be? Listen to others – be interested in what they do; and how.
Never pass up the opportunity to hear how people outside of your genre ‘do what they do’ – you may just discover your Eureka moment.
What are your top tips for networking and maintaining a healthy network? Do you have any horror stories to share? What timesaving tips can you suggest? Get networking and share that nugget in the comments box below.
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