There are a whole host of networking events and opportunities available, so it’s worth understanding what’s on offer so you have an idea of what to expect.
Not every type of event suits everybody – different events have different advantages and disadvantages.
Below is a very general overview of the most common types of events.
Casual contact events don’t require you to make any commitment other than turn up.
Some events are aimed at a certain sector, industry or size/type of business. Some are open to businesses of all sectors and sizes. Some are free, some charge a small fee.
Sometimes the host will introduce you to other attendees, but quite often, you have to be proactive in starting conversations. If you are nervous a good place to start is at the coffee station – most people head there first.
Some events will involve the host or sponsor giving a short presentation to promote their business. Most events last a couple of hours.
These types of events are more casual, so you aren’t expected to pitch to everyone in the room and nobody will be trying to commit you to becoming a member.
Pros: No pressure to join or do any public speaking. Can be a great way to meet other local business owners and get the word out about your business.
Cons: Attendees can vary from one event to the next. You won’t always know who will be there and it can be harder to form meaningful connections.
Strong contact groups are groups that meet regularly. You can usually attend once or twice as a visitor or guest for a small fee before committing to a full membership.
These types of networking groups often require members to make some kind of commitment such as attending regular meetings, inviting visitors, or bringing referrals for other members.
Sometimes they have a lock-out policy where they will only allow one member from each industry.
One of the most well-known organisations of this type is Business Network International (BNI). There are thousands of BNI groups around the world. They all follow a similar format, but each group is slightly different because of the members in the group.
I was a member of BNI for three years and I made some great friends and got introduced to a lot of new clients – some who are still clients years later. But it is a big commitment and a lot of people find it too formulaic and strict.
Pros: You meet with other members regularly so you build stronger relationships. It can be a great way to get referrals and build connections and friendships with other business owners.
Cons: Being a member of a strong contact group can involve a big investment of time. You have to agree to the terms. This can include meeting minimum requirements in terms of attendance, visitor inviting and bringing referrals for other members.
A professional association is a group consisting of people who work in the same field – for example, accountants, educators, HR professionals, manufacturers, authors and so on.
Members of these associations can often access valuable industry insights, news, learning, training courses, and networking opportunities.
Some professional associations charge a membership fee and require members to meet certain criteria (such as holding specific qualifications).
As well as professional associations, there are also lots of informal industry meetups. For example, #CopywritersUnite is an informal social event organised by copywriters for copywriters. WordPress meetup groups are locally organised groups that meet face-to-face to discuss their WordPress experiences.
Although you could essentially be networking with your “competitors”, it is possible you will meet people who can refer business to you when they have no capacity or when the client isn’t a right fit. This will depend on the industry you work in and how niche the events are.
Pros: Great way to meet other people in your industry and gain insight, share experience, and get advice from people who have “been there, done that”. There may be opportunities for collaboration or referrals.
Cons: Depending on your industry and the type of event, this type of networking might not be as good for finding clients as you are networking with people who offer similar services.
Peer-to-peer groups (or advisory boards)
Peer-to-peer groups are usually made up of a small number of business owners with similar-sized businesses and often require a longer-term commitment or membership.
The idea is that you meet with other members regularly to share specific business challenges. Members provide advice and guidance on how to overcome the challenges and act as advisors for each other.
These types of events can sometimes include coaching and mentoring elements as well. The Alternative Board (TAB) is an example of this type of group.
Pros: Useful if you have a specific challenge or business issue you need help with or you are ready to grow your business and want advice.
Cons: Because business owners are often sharing sensitive information, these types of groups tend to be member-only and you probably won’t network with as many different people.
Speaker events and seminars
If you aren’t an experienced networker, these types of events can be a great way to build your confidence.
Everyone is there to listen to the speaker or speakers so you all have something in common which means you have a ready-made conversation point.
Plus, even if you don’t talk to anyone, you’ll probably still learn something from the presentation or seminar which means you won’t have wasted your time.
Pros: You learn something. You have a conversation starter – talk about the speaker or the topic of the talk or seminar.
Cons: Some talks can end up being glorified sales pitches – do a bit of research before signing up.
If face-to-face networking isn’t your thing or there aren’t any local events that work for you, online networking is an option.
Online networking can involve live events where you speak directly to people via video. Or you can network with people using written content on platforms such as LinkedIn, Slack, Facebook or in private communities.
The biggest benefit to online networking is it allows you to connect with people around the world, rather than just in the nearby areas.
Pros: No travel time to and from events. Can be less daunting than in-person networking. Enables you to network with people around the globe.
Cons: Harder to build deep connections and make lasting impressions.
Conferences and exhibitions
Conferences and exhibitions provide an opportunity to practice your networking skills.
You can start conversations with exhibitors. Or if you are an exhibitor yourself, you can practice talking about your services to people who show an interest in your stand.
Some conferences and exhibitions have dedicated networking slots where you can mingle with other attendees.
Again, you have a ready-made conversation as you can talk about the event itself.
Pros: Not as daunting as some networking events as there is no pressure to speak to anyone – you can just enjoy the event.
Cons: Easy to walk away without having spoken to anyone about your business.