5 useful small business networking tips for entrepreneurs

When entrepreneurs set out to network, they often start by getting active on social media platforms, joining conversations and reaching out to people.

We know that nothing quite beats the power of face-to-face connections, but given COVID-19, there are plenty of ways to create meaningful connections online. One of our favourite approaches to networking and meeting our members has always been our Tide Masterclasses. Although due to the pandemic we’ve had to put in-person workshops and events on hold, you can still join our Masterclasses online

In this guide, we’re giving you a breakdown of how to make the most of your business networking efforts, both in-person and online. You’ll learn how to find the best events to attend, methods to research target connections and how to make a great first impression.

Table of contents

What is business networking?

There are many different ways to network, but when we talk about business networking, we mean using it as a method of generating new leads, customers and business opportunities.

Business networking is where you meet and connect with other entrepreneurs, buyers and key decision-makers to reach a tangible business goal. Here a few ways it can benefit both your personal and business growth:

  1. Build your personal brand and profile. The more you connect with people and demonstrate your expertise, the more likely they’ll want to work with you. They’re also more likely to refer you to people who have a problem they know you can solve.
  2. Offer your expertise. As you share your knowledge with people in your industry, others will do the same for you. It’s a great way to learn about other’s experiences and uncover ways you can solve your own problems.
  3. Keep a finger on the pulse of the market. Whether you’re looking for business or sales opportunities, things are always changing. By networking with other people working in your industry, you get a deeper understanding of the challenges your customers and peers are facing.
  4. Improve upon your own confidence. Connecting with others over time builds confidence in your personal communications skills. It will also give you confidence in your business idea, as the excitement of others can be contagious.

Follow these five steps to build or improve your business networking strategy.

1. Define your networking goals

In order to truly reap the benefits from business networking events, you must first set out some tangible goals. When it comes to any sales or marketing activity, there are things you can control and things you can’t. The things you can control when networking include the number of people you approach and the number of conversations you invest in.

Elements you can’t control are sales appointments and useful small business networking tips for entrepreneurs, well, generating actual sales. These are outcomes that can be measured, not activities you have agency over.

Therefore, you should set activity-driven goals first when heading out to business events. Perhaps you want to have five meaningful conversations or to convert one connection into a coffee meeting.

You should also look at networking as a long-term activity in which you move your connections down the “networking funnel.” Using broad strokes, this funnel looks something like this:

The four steps of the networking funnel - people you've only just met, people you've known for some time, people you know well, deep and personal connections

With this in mind, focus on conversations that build high-quality connections. Why is this so important? Because it will help you stand out.

When you join a conversation with an intention to add value, it’ll show. As you connect with like-minded small business owners and they see you have knowledge to share, it will make them open to having deeper conversations with you.

So, before you head to an event ask yourself, “How can I add value to the people that I’m going to meet?”. This could be something as simple as sharing your own expertise or giving some advice to a problem that you are well equipped to solve.

Top Tip: Speaking of valuable connections, the best way to attract top talent is by building a strong business culture that people want to work with. This applies to both your employees and business partners alike. The better the business environment, the more likely you are to boost engagement and productivity, influence employee and partner engagement and improve your brand reputation. To learn more, read our guide to how to build a happy business culture from the start 🔥

2. Finding relevant events, meetups and groups

With your goals defined, it’s time to look for worthwhile communities and business networking groups to join and events to attend.

There are lots of ways to find communities and events relevant to your networking objectives. Let’s go through some of the most effective platforms and channels.

Look at online directories

Websites like Meetup are built specifically to bring people together around various interests and industries. You can search for groups that get together around a specific topic, or browse upcoming events in your industry. You can also filter by “in person” and “online” events.

Simply search for a relevant keyword (for example “ecommerce”), and select your geographical range (e.g. “5 miles within London”):

Business Networking - Meetup Search

Then, look for groups with a sizable community and upcoming events. This is a good sign that the community is still active and worth investing some time into. If you feel brave consider at speaking at some of the events or be part of a panel discussion. That way all eyes are on you and it will be a lot easier to connect with people after.

Another option is Eventbrite, which works in a similar way. Simply search for a relevant keyword in your city or geo and you’ll see a list of events you can attend. Also, search for online or virtual events only to enjoy a networking event from the comfort of your own home.

Business Networking - Eventbrite

Check out Facebook Groups

There are several active professional Facebook Groups for almost any industry you can think of. A simple search for social media marketing groups yield dozens (perhaps hundreds) of results:

Business Networking - Facebook Groups

Much like Meetup, look for active groups with a large audience size. Depending on your industry, this could range from a couple of hundred to 10,000+ members. But you should also look for engagement. Sometimes, you may find groups with a small number (say 50 to 100) but have regular, daily activity.

While topic- and industry-specific groups have members from all over the world, you could also search for groups in a specific location e.g. “marketing london”. Again, while these may be smaller, they’re more likely to have an active community that meets up face-to-face.

Join in on the Twitter chat

There are lots of people already networking on Twitter. And while it’s not as effective as connecting face-to-face, it can be a great way to start things off.

Similar to Facebook Groups above, search for your relevant topic or industry and start connecting with other active users:

Business Networking - Twitter Search

Add them to a list so you can keep on top of the conversation. Oftentimes, industry movers-and-shakers will organise their own events. Keep tabs so you can take advantage when they do.

It’s possible to set up initial meetings from Twitter alone. Keep in touch with people you want to meet in your market. Once you’ve built some “digital rapport”, reach out and offer to share some ideas over a cup of coffee or on a Zoom call.

Top Tip: Social media is a powerful tool that can be used for both business networking and as part of your marketing strategy. To learn how to establish your brand on social media to help boost engagement and reach, read our 7-step guide to creating a social media marketing strategy for your small business 💻

Start your own community

While this one takes some time, it’s also one of the most effective approaches. By starting your own community and inviting people into it, you can start organising your own events.

Begin by tapping into the other channels listed in this section first. Connect with others in your industry, build connections and then invite them to join your community.

You can build your community on Facebook Groups, Slack or even in a WhatsApp group. Find a channel that works best for your audience, and then start setting up your own events. These could be:

  • Casual meetups. Book an area at your local pub and bring people together to chat for an hour
  • Workshops. Invite  members to speak and share their expertise with the group
  • Panel sessions. Similar to the above, bring several experts on stage to speak around a specific topic
  • Senior roundtables. Bring a handful of c-suite executives together to discuss relevant and pressing challenges (perfect if you target an enterprise audience).

Running your own events will foster relationships and progress connections down your networking funnel. They also attract new members and helps to expand your network and networking opportunities further.

3. Researching other members and attendees

You’ve found a handful of networking events to attend. Now it is time to do some research to show up prepared and get the most out of each event.

Luckily, it’s not difficult to find the names of attendees thanks to them being listed prominently on many of the channels above.

By researching who’s attended beforehand, you can create a shortlist of people you’d love to speak with. Start by going through the attendee list and look out for job titles and company names.

For example, if you’re looking to connect with other marketers at a more senior level, look through this list to see who you can find.

Once you’ve found two to five people (we recommend keeping things small so you can focus on fostering strong relationships), it’s time to research them. There are various effective ways to do this:

  1. Search for their name on Google
  2. Check out their website
  3. Research them on LinkedIn

If your networking targets create their own content, take a look at what they’re creating to note their go-to topics and identify any emerging patterns. For example, let’s say we’ve found an attendee who wrote a blog post on sales enablement on the HubSpot blog:

Business Networking - Blog Post Example

We can assume, therefore, that the author is interested in this as a topic, along with other broad sales topics. If they live and breathe sales, then the content itself will provide insight into what they believe.

Find something within the content that you have in common. For example, in the article above, the author talks about training “multi-skilled sellers:”

Business Networking - Insight From Blog Post

If you were also a sales professional and agreed with his points on consultative selling, this would be a great talking point for when you meet.

Then, there’s LinkedIn, the professional social platform that gives you a brief history of an individual, along with the content they engage with. For example, you can go to their recent activity and see which conversations they’re joining in on:

Business Networking - LinkedIn Post

Of course, not everyone is active on LinkedIn. If this is the case for your target connections, see if you can find them on Twitter (or other social media platforms).

4. Connecting and engaging before the event

Having this insight will make starting conversations much easier when it comes to the day of the event.

However, you could also use this as an opportunity to reach out to them beforehand. Use this insight to warm your target connections up before meeting them.

Again, start with the social network they can be found on. If they’re on LinkedIn, send a personalised invite. For example, here’s a simple connection invite you can send based on the content your target connection creates:

Business Networking - LinkedIn Invite

You may not always get a response, which is why you should test a multi-channel approach. Share their content on Twitter (if they’re active there, too). Comment on the relevant blog post.

But don’t overdo it! You don’t want to come across as too needy.

5. Networking tips to work the room

You’ve got your goals defined, and a list of people you’d love to connect with. The day has come and it’s time to work the room.

To wrap up this guide, we’ll share some simple networking tips to help you make a good first impression and build strong relationships.

Tip 1: Prepare an elevator pitch

People will inevitably ask you what you and your business does. Instead of simply giving a description of your company name or what it does, focus on the core problem you solve.

For example, the founder of a marketing agency could say: “I run a marketing agency for ecommerce brands.”

Or, they could focus on the benefits of what their service and problem they alleviate: “We help ecommerce brands generate traffic and increase sales using a proven growth marketing methodology.”

This helps you to avoid waffling about your business and gets straight to the point. When people ask for more information on how you do it, you can go into more depth.

Top Tip: You should already have an elevator pitch in your business plan. If you haven’t yet written one, consider the fact that entrepreneurs who take the time to create a plan for their business idea are 129% more likely to push forward with it beyond the start-up phase. To learn more, read our guide to how to create a business plan and write your company roadmap 💡

Tip 2: Wear a smile

It’s easy to forget to smile in these situations, especially if you’re a little introverted and feeling nervous. But wearing your best, most welcoming smile, will help you appear more approachable to others.

On top of this, smiling has been known to improve confidence and your overall mood. Do this before you enter a room, as you’ll start creating a natural habit the more you network.

Tip 3: Joining conversations

There’s no avoiding it; if you want to interact with a number of different people at some point you’ll have to join a conversation that’s already happening. The best way to do this is to politely ask if you can join in at an opportune moment. No one likes to be interrupted mid-sentence.

Looking for people with “open body language” will also help. By this, we mean those who aren’t directly facing each other. If two or more people are conversing but are facing towards the room, this is a good sign they’re open for others to join the conversation.

Tip 4: Ask questions and dig deep

It can be easy to lead a question by going into “interview mode”, where the answer to each question is followed up by another question.

Instead of taking an answer at face value, dig deep into their responses to learn more about their motivations and build a stronger level of rapport. An example conversation might look something like this:

You: “So, what are you hoping to get out of this event?”

Connection: “I’m looking to learn a little more about the industry and connect with others.”

You: “That’s interesting, is there a particular area you’re looking to learn more about?”

Be sure to contribute to these responses instead of simply asking more questions. For example, your new connection may respond to the question above like this:

Connection: “I want to learn more about how the wholesale process works and get my product into retail outlets.”

You: “That’s interesting! I actually read a little about this last week. Apparently, those who take a traditional business development approach see the best results. Have you thought of any ideas on connecting with the retail movers-and-shakers?”

This way, you’re adding value while building deeper rapport.

Top Tip: Make sure you remember the small things! You’re likely going to meet people again, so remembering little details (like that holiday in Cyprus, or the promotion they just scored at work) will show your new connections that you care  🌈

Tip 5: Share your enthusiasm

If you truly want to connect with people, you should show a level of passion for what you do and the topics you talk about. It helps if you’re already passionate about it, as it’s something you can’t fake.

Don’t be afraid to show your excitement when covering a specific topic. Share stories around your experiences, why you started your business and the ways you’ve helped customers. These stories can be infectious and will inspire others to open up with their own experiences.

Tip 6: Always follow up

Finally, don’t let your new connections go stale. When you feel like you’ve met someone that is worthwhile staying in touch with (or someone who can help you reach your goals), exchange details.

Having the LinkedIn app on your phone can make this easy, as all you’ll need to do is search for their name and click “connect.” Of course, business cards still work well, too.

When you do follow up, open with a “callback” from your initial meeting. Most importantly, make sure you lead the conversation to the next step in the relationship – whether that be a formal sales appointment or a casual coffee.

Top Tip: Networking isn’t just a great way to meet with your peers, it can also lead to new customers for your service business. Check out how in our guide on 32 proven ways to increase your clients as a freelancer 🧲

Wrapping up

Like any business activity that requires connecting with people, business networking is all about adding value. While it’s important to have your business goals in mind when entering the room, it’s important to focus on building strong relationships first.

To recap, your networking process should look something like this:

  1. Be clear on your business goals and focus on activity-based goals like number of conversations for each event
  2. Identify relevant events and conferences where an engaged audience in your industry can be found
  3. Research attendees to get an idea of their interests, challenges and priorities
  4. Consider connecting with them before the event to warm up the initial conversation
  5. Work the room, be personable and ask in-depth questions to build strong connections
  6. Exchange details/connect online and follow up with the people you are most keen to meet again and build stronger relationships with

Using this approach, you’ll build a strong network of business contacts in no time.

Photo by Hivan Arvizu

Valentine Hutchings

Valentine Hutchings

Head of Community and small business enthusiast

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