Sorry to say it, millennials and you other tech addicts, but at some point you’re going to have to stow away the smartphone and brave the world, meet people, shake a few hands and talk about, well, your business and how you can help a potential client. Gasp. Yup, you read it correctly. Face to face in the real world.
No matter if your LinkedIn profile gets 10 or 100 views a week or your Twitter, Instagram and Facebook connections number in the thousands, face-to-face interaction is still the ticket to getting ahead in your career and attracting more customers. Raise your hand if you’ve actually met — as in person — 50 percent of your cyber site contacts.
Social media has its place in your networking efforts. In fact, it’s more important than ever in establishing your brand and building business relationships. (Just be wary of the occasional contact who’s trying to make a love connection. It happens, says Lani Click, founder and president of Clicking In Forum, which hosts seasonal thought leadership and idea exchange forums in Palm Beach County.)
“A general marketing fact is it takes seven touches to build trust,” said Cyndee Woolley, a Naples public relations, marketing, branding and social media strategist whose C2 Communications has worked with small businesses to Fortune 500 companies. “Someone has to see your name seven times to really build that trust. Using a mix of media makes it memorable.”
Identify your audience
Before you attend an event or strike up an online connection, know whom you need to reach.
In her book, “Building Brand (You),” Ms. Woolley identifies three core audiences each businessperson should connect to. The top of the list is the ideal customer but equally important are establishing peer and inspirational networks for professional and personal support.
“Networking today means many things,” said Tami Patzer, founder of Englewood-based Blue Ocean Authority, Business Innovators Radio and author of the 2011 “Ask TAMI: A Logbook of 365+ Social Media Tips, Tricks and Tools.” “It means an online presence — you want to be where potential clients are. You may be on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or LinkedIn. You need to know who your ideal client is and go where they are to provide high-quality, valuable information. If networking is part of someone’s business strategy, they need to integrate online and offline.”
Understanding your audience is also about knowing how best to reach them. Text a texter, email a potential customer who works in an office, send a private Facebook message and never underestimate the power of a good old-fashioned phone call, she says.
“You can’t convey emotion in emails and they (calls) can’t get misinterpreted depending on whatever the person is feeling that day,” Ms. Patzer said. “People are afraid to talk on the phone. You’d be pleasantly surprised that decisions can be made during a short telephone conversation.”
Experts say it’s perfectly acceptable to make an initial introduction through social media.
“Social media is very, very powerful and I use it a lot,” Ms. Click said. “If you rely on it too much, you waste a lot of time because of its addictive quality. It’s always needy and you have to realize you’re never going to stay on top of it. If you try to cover them all, it’s overwhelming.”
Ms. Click also owns Palm Beach Purses and has her social media faves. She’s not a fan of Facebook but loves LinkedIn and credits Instagram for forcing her creativity with clever hashtags and titles. While planning a series of You- Tube video for a new purse collection, a young intern advised each be limited to 20 seconds.
“I’m flexible and will try new things,” she said. “We posted them and had a huge response.”
When trying to get press for her clients, Ms. Woolley said she gets the most response by sending information to reporters’ Twitter accounts.
Present a professional image
Remember a lot of your initial networking is virtual and potential clients (and employers) are going to visit your business and social sites. Invest in a professional head shot, says Ms. Woolley. “It costs about $100. Pictures are so valuable. I flip through social media profiles and some still make me think, ‘What were they thinking?’ Their head is cropped out of a group shot on the beach. You see someone’s shoulder and it looks like an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend is clipped out. Or they have red eyes. It conveys a message of someone who can’t pay attention to the details.”
Presenting the right image, one that reflects your brand, can also get muddied by the past, including negative messages you’ve liked on a friend’s Facebook page. Some people still aren’t getting the message that potential clients are going to dig into your virtual world and pass judgment.
“After this election season, people are forgetting how to be human beings and are saying nasty things online,” said Ms. Woolley. “This comes back to haunt you.”
At some point, most businesspeople have to get outside their comfort zone and make a personal appearance at a chamber event, lecture or conference to increase the odds of landing new business.
“I’m seeing more successful young executives locally and nationally who have a really strong presence about them in person,” Ms. Woolley said. “They know real business happens in person.”
Above Board Chamber, a faith-based organization with chapters in Lee and Collier counties, focuses on the face-to-face, offering monthly lectures or panels lead by local experts. January’s events “Workplace Law – How to Stay out of Jail in 2017” certainly has an attention-getting title, but they bring together members to network. Many are still at it an hour after the talk, said founder Jeanne Sweeney.
“My goal is for members to walk in, meet other people and walk out the door having learned something,” said Ms. Sweeney. “There is sustenance in what we offer. We want people to get something out of this, that they just learned something and their business is going to get better because of what they learned. Our members work together and there are no cliques. Some members call us ‘the family.’”
Ms. Click also emphasizes substance in her forums, which have featured former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley discussing survival after scandal and Jeff Greene’s rise from a busboy at The Breakers to billionaire real estate mogul. She’s also sponsored networking events focused on arts, crafts, culture, books and her purse collection.
A former playwright, Ms. Click often thinks of networking in terms of the theater, creating “events with people based on ideas. You have to put effort into networking to be successful. You have to understand why people are at an event, what they’re looking for and how you can help them.”
She also helps attendees overcome the don’t-know-anyone jitters by introducing them to others.
“No one feels like a stranger,” Ms. Click said. “That’s that key to networking: You have to be sincere.”
Not every networking opportunity is so cozy or friendly.
Even high-ranking CEOs of major companies lose their cool when it comes to working a room. There’s also a general consensus that newly minted MBAs aren’t always trained in communications skills.
“Human contact is still very important,” said Ms. Patzer. “The key to networking is to find out as much as you can about the event and determine a realistic goal. Talk to five people who may be an ideal client or a referral. Everything about networking is all about you and them, who you are and what you can do for them.”
Exchange business cards, send an immediate friend request on Facebook or connect on LinkedIn, she recommends. Take selfies together and tag each other. “You’ve made a connection even if they lose your business card.”
The follow-up is important, says Ms. Woolley and Ms. Patzer, and should segue into coffee or a business meeting.
But cautions Ms. Patzer, watch it doesn’t “turn into a pick-your-brain-fest.”
She also says video conferences and Skype sessions can substitute for in-person meetings if there’s a distance barrier or a potential business partnership is in preliminary discussions. “Sometimes people tell me to meet (them) in Naples but with all these tools, there’s no reason to drive across town for a short meeting,” she says. “I want a client to value my time and their time. It’s really important to understand you can do business globally, network globally and don’t have to leave home or the office. You can create a rich, deep connection without physically being there.”
Do your research
Not every chamber or association icebreaker is going to result in milliondollar leads. Nor will every potential contact become your ideal client.
“Finding the right event to make the right connections is important,” said Ms. Woolley. “If you’re trying to get business from a CEO you need to profile them and decide what events they’re likely to attend by thinking about your one or two best customers — where you met them, the activities they like and their social lives. A CEO with children at home will probably do more morning events. If you’re not meeting your ideal customer, move on and find another opportunity. People waste a lot of time at nonproductive networking events. They feel they’re doing something even if it isn’t effective.”
Social media also helps you gain somewhat of an understanding of those potential clients but be wary as honesty and truth isn’t always practiced on some sites.
Also, don’t discount your connections. “If you’re trying to get an entry into a business or company, you’re probably connected to them by a second or third connection who can make a warmer introduction,” Ms. Woolley says. “Some people completely overlook this. They’re reinventing the wheel by looking for a phone number or finding an administrative assistant.”
Case in point: Ms. Woolley landed online training courses based on her book by following up on a pop-up LinkedIn suggestion. She reached out to that connection and inquired about getting her book reviewed.
“He didn’t do that but forwarded my information to someone who did,” she said. “The next day I got a phone call from the person who selects books to review. She said she didn’t know how my name ended up on her desk out of the hundreds of other requests. I cut through the clutter.”
As part of her service to her members, Ms. Sweeney offers free press release and blog distribution and opportunities to attend speaker and after-hours events held at a variety of venues in both counties. But to her, the trend in networking is the personal touch she provides. Ms. Sweeney makes a point of always being accessible via cellphone and social media (she answered a reporter’s call during a doctor’s appointment).
“I make sure no one gets lost in the shuffle,” she said. “I’ve helped members figure out social media and walked them through Facebook. One of my favorite things is our Member Checkup. With most businesses there’s usually one thing they’re not really good at. They let me know if they have financial, legal or marketing issues and I send a member to consult for free.”
Ms. Patzer said the future of networking is a mix of “online and offline interactions with the trend being toward fewer personal meetings and more online. Yes, you can do almost everything online and never leave your house. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Put the phone away and look into someone’s eyes and have a real conversation. That’s so vital today.” ¦