How To Choose a Network
When you start a business or want to start networking, it’s sometimes hard to know where to start or how to choose the right network to join, so I thought I’d jot down a few considerations on how to choose a network. Some of these will have already occured to you, but others may not, so hopefully you’ll find it of overall benefit.
Regardless of the final decisions, the advice I give networking novices is two-fold:
Tip: Don’t limit yourself to one network. It’s too narrow and you will quickly run out of steam in terms of creating and generating new relationships. I’ll discuss this further again in another blog post.
Tip: Try out lots of different networks and go a couple of times to each one. You’ll get a feel quite quickly as to whether you and your business fit in with the other businesses, people in the room. You’ll get a gauge for how interactive, how supportive, how diverse the networks are. You’ll know when you’ve found your tribe. You’ll also know when it just doesn’t feel right.
Here are some of the things I think need to be considered when choosing your network. Not all of these points will be relevant for each business and for each person who is networking, but it will be a combination of considerations. Very often, many networks host visitor days, so if you’d feel more comfortable attending a visitor’s day, contact the network to find out when the next one is. Having a search on Eventbrite is always another way to see when there are visitor days and you can register to attend that way.
The first consideration is whether your business is in a business to business (B2B) or business to consumer market (B2C). You need to be clear on who your target market is as not all networks will suit each business profile. Do your research in advance and get in contact with the host to assess whether it would be a good fit for your product or service.
Where are you located and how easily can you access the networks that you intend visiting? Is your business bound by geography or are you able to work with businesses anywhere? I hear, sometimes, of businesses only choosing networks, because they are in their backyard. This may be fine, but it’s limiting. Don’t be afraid to branch out and go further afield. Consider the footprint of the network. Is it purely city based, is it regional, national or does it have international affiliations? What matters for your business and network development?
Time of Day
Networks are often run very early in the morning, anywhere from 6.30am to 7am or a little later. Some run mid morning, after the school runs, and some are at lunchtimes. Others run in the evening time, some even running at weekends. Generally speaking, they last approximately one and a half hours as a rule of thumb, but others span two hours. This implies the formal aspect of the meeting and doesn’t necessarily include the informal meeting over coffee in advance. It’s a good idea to check out the structure of the meeting and the expectations in advance, so you are prepared and don’t get caught out.
Some networks run once per month on a scheduled basis and many run once per week. You need to be clear on the frequency and the expectation around attendance, as this speaks to your time commitment that you need to factor into your weekly or monthly plan. Some networks will audit your participation and attendance and others are more relaxed.
Day of Week
Be aware of the day of the week and how it fits into your overall schedule and how you will manage this around any domestic and work commitments.
It’s the norm at formal networking meetings to have up to 60 seconds to tell people a little bit about your business. It’s not a long period of time and invariably you will get to say your name, your business name, a little on what you do and that’s really it. Where the real connection starts being made is when you get to do a deep dive into your business and tell people more about what you do, why you do what you do and who you are looking to connect with. These ‘deep dive’ presentations can last from 10 minutes to 20 minutes, depending on the network. We’ll explore the presentations in more details and give some thought as to how to best approach the presentation on an upcoming blog.
Generally speaking, the presentations go on rotation and to a schedule. There is generally an ‘education’ or ‘presentation’ coordinator who will liaise with you around the date.
Type of Network
There are different types of networks. All of these are membership driven.
- Professional associations, federations or trade associations that are connected to your topic or area of expertise. Very often these are connected to publishing abstracts, to earning CPD points, networking, learning and career progression.
- Chambers (of Commerce) – these tend to be located in a district of businesses. Membership tends to be divided down into larger Corporate members and then the SME community, which is often an amalgm of solopreneurs and smaller companies looking to connect, build relationships and generate leads or referrals for their business. (I put of Commerce in brackets, as this has largely been dropped from all Chambers, certainly in Ireland; they are als simply known as X region Chamber).
- Referral Networks – referral business networks are exactly that. They operate on a one seat per profession policy. Members come together on a weekly business, to get to know one another, do their pitch, rotate the company presentation slot and then see how they can pass leads and referrals to one another.
- Informal Networks – there are oodles of informal networks in every county and region. Very often there are monthly events that run in the evening with a guest speaker. Generally there is some informal networking, a little business, e.g. 60 second intro on your business and then it’s over to the guest speaker. In a recent blog, I discussed the Network Ireland network. This is a more informal one, so read more about it. It’s female only and is fantastic for your contacts, for the personal and professional support.
Some networks are female only in terms of membership and others are ‘gender neutral’. Depending on your business and your target audience, your selection of networks to be involved in, may focus on women only or you may want to combine the types of networks you are involved in.
Ofline and Online Presence
In my opinion, the digital and online presence matters a lot. I like to see how a network bridges the offline, i.e. face to face networking and the online networking opportunities. Browse through the different social media channels for the different networks and take a mental note of how active they are, be it on Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Instagra, YouTube and indeed on their website. Are members profiled? Is there an opportunity to share blogs posts? Are there podcasts or other ways to get your personal and professional brand ‘out there’. Connecting digitally is everything that happens between the face to face meetings, so it matters. Between presentations and digital support, you need to be aware of how you can leverage the networks’ platforms to your benefit.
One Seat Policy
Some networks have a one seat per profession policy. This is particularly relevant for referral networks and business networks. Chambers and other more relaxed networks won’t have a strict policy, so you may be in a business, e.g. web development, alongside other web developers. I’ve never come across any issues with this, as everyone is looking to widen and expand their networks, and I find the groups to be tremendously supportive. If you are looking at networks that operate a one seat per profession policy, ensure you visit two or even three times. Go to different groups within the network to get a feel for where you and your business ‘fit’. A part of this fit will be in who is in the room with you and sitting around the table.
Training & Induction
This isn’t going to be a make or break factor, but it’s worth taking note of. Some networks organise inductions and training for people joining the network so that they can learn how to get the best out of their network and learn how to leverage it.
Many networking groups that I’m involved in get in guest speakers from time to time to speak on a specific topic. It’s a great way of learning and get more insights into different aspects of business. When there is a guest speaker, there can often be an increase in attendance also, so it’s a great networking opportunity and often has an enhanced layer of conviviality to it.
I only recently got into applying for awards and I am now sold and a complete advocate for what it will do for your confidence. I’ll be discussing this very topic on my next blog. Awards are a great way to measure and benchmark your business. Chambers, some referral groups, and other informal networks have awards and often entering is free and a part of your membership ‘entitlement’. This is a great way to raise profile for you and your business, so I would thoroughly recommend being a part of networks that offer awards within their ‘membership benefits’.
Have you noticed that it’s the last thing I’ve mentioned? Because I think it’s the last consideration. Many put it first, but here’s why I put it last. In my opinion you have to look at return on objective first (ROO). Set out your key performance indicators (KPIs) and define how you are going to measure success. Success in networking comes in many different formats. Receiving leads and referrals is only one measure of success, but there are so many other measurements, which we’ll discover soon. You need to look at the return on investment (ROI). Investment for me comes in two forms 1) money, i.e. what you pay out for the memberships subs or fees 2) your investment of time. One way to measure the ROI in monetary terms is to look at the average value of your customers and ideal clients. What are they worth to you and how much time would it take to ‘earn’ your membership fees back. Very often, particulary in B2B markets, one sale a year, more than justifies a membership fee and yet, so many more leads would be passed. And as I said, this is only one measurement parameter to consider.
I’ll update my list from time to time, but I hope these 14 points give you some food for thoughts and if you’ve any questions, as always come back to me at email@example.com and I’ll be happy to answer them or give you a steer.