Attending business network events and joining business networks as a small business owner can be an effective way to make long-lasting connections, but it can also be intimidating if you don’t know what to expect or how to make the most out of the experience.
With the right approach, however, you can turn any network event into an opportunity that will help take your career to the next level and find business success.
Table of Contents
1. Research the event and its attendees
Small businesses should always do their research on networking events and the attendees who will be present.
Knowing who is attending an event can give you an idea of the types of connections and opportunities that could be available to you, and help shape your strategy for making those relationships.
It also gives you an opportunity to research potential contacts prior to the event and come prepared with questions or conversation starters. This research can also provide valuable insight into the industries that are represented, which can help you create more meaningful conversations during the event or follow-up after it.
The attendee list, more often than not, will likely not be publicly available beforehand for data protection purposes – it’s still worth checking the organiser’s social media channels to see if any pre-event conversations have started that you could potentially be involved in.
The different types of events you might find:
- national providers, such as government departments or private organisations like Enterprise Nation
- local paid-for membership offerings (e.g. B4 Networking)
- online and in-person peer networking
- sector- or business-stage specific (e.g. entrepreneur only, technology companies)
What should be made very clear is who the facilitator(s) or guest speaker(s) is/are for the event. Looking to connect with these individuals is a great way to build your network of in-the-know and well-respected figures from a range of backgrounds, and puts your business in front of them, even if just for a short amount of time.
By arming yourself with this knowledge, you can maximise the benefit of networking events for your business, and use them as an opportunity to make meaningful connections that are of value to all parties involved.
Business Consultant, Ant Parsons, speaks to a crowd of entrepreneurs at our monthly OxBOoSt networking event.
2. Prepare your elevator pitch
Your elevator pitch is a short spiel that should focus on who you are, what your company does, and how others may benefit from working with you. It should be concise, easy to remember and clearly communicate your value proposition.
An elevator pitch is a great way to introduce yourself when networking, as it succinctly summarises who you are and what you do for those who may not have heard of you or your business, whilst developing your ‘brand’ voice too.
In action: our different investor pitching programs
Many businesses in recent years have come to OxLEP Business looking to develop their pitching ability. Through our Investor Pitching and Pitch to the Panel workshops, we have helped entrepreneurs gain confidence in public speaking, work on a robust strategy for their pitch book, and learn from and share challenges with their peers.
When like minded people and small business owners come together, it soon becomes an essential part of their internal growth, having to leave their comfort zone but having that support and encouragement behind them. Meeting people isn’t always the easiest thing to do, but this exciting format makes it far less stressful!
These workshops go beyond just practice and feedback; real investors have formed part of our judging panels, giving an organization genuine pitching experiences and, further down the line, potential funding.
Remember that your pitch doesn’t need to be repeated verbatim for every person you meet – tailoring it depending on their company, position and the type of service they provide is fantastic way to bring in a more personal approach.
It’s also an opportunity to showcase the unique qualities that make your business stand out from others in your industry. This could be something like a unique selling proposition, an engaging business backstory or maybe even some awards or accolades that you have recently won.
When crafting the perfect elevator pitch, focus on what sets your business apart from others and make sure to highlight the points that will have most relevance for those who you are networking with.
A business owner speaks at the 2023 Celebration Event at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford.
3. First appearances can make the difference!
As many business owners and entrepreneurs will (hopefully) already know, first impressions count for a lot – networking groups are no different.
Making sure you dress appropriately for the occasion is something different from the norm in day-to-day running a business life, but can make all the difference when you’re meeting new people, making connections and attempting to generate interest in your business.
This doesn’t necessarily mean dressing in smart business attire. Many smaller, local business networking groups have a far more casual vibe and it can be much more fitting to not go in as too corporate. Of course, going too far that way (think beach short and sandals) could harm any sense of professionalism and potentially prompt misconceptions about your company.
Understanding that attendees to business networks could be viewed as ‘customers’, and adjusting your approach accordingly, is a balanced mindset to take when going into the unknown.
Female entrepreneurs networking at the 2023 Women in Business event.
4. Making meaningful connections in a positive environment
Making connections and conversations at networking groups can be a difficult task as it can be hard to break the ice. It’s important to know that if you feel apprehensive, especially if its your first event, you’re not alone.
The key to business success in a networking event is to have confidence in yourself and what you do. There’s no pressure to ‘sell’ or ‘promote’ your services. Instead, try to concentrate on having meaningful conversations with the people you meet and look for ways that you can help each other, whether it’s through sharing advice or referring business opportunities.
At our networking groups, we find that attendees get as much out of an event as they put in. We have a range of peer support programs that run over a series of sessions, alongside our one-off workshops, which allow attendees to build collaborative relationships over time and develop a sense of community among the businesses there.
At the end of the day, you can’t go wrong with following the simple rules of bringing a smile, having an open body language, and asking questions that will spark interest in the conversation. And free tea and coffees tend to help too!
5. Successful networking doesn’t end when the event is over
The vital importance of following up after a networking event cannot be understated.
Successful networking is about building relationships, and this requires continued communication long after the initial meeting occurs. Following up with contacts made at the event will help to solidify relationships and open up more opportunities for collaboration with others in your network.
Following up could take the form of sending an email or connecting on social media platforms like LinkedIn. Utilising business cards given out (or collected) during the event can also help you remember key pieces of information that you discussed, such as potential projects or collaborations that could benefit both parties.
It may be viewed as old-fashioned, but having some business cards at hand enables quick-fire connection at events.
Facilitating and fostering these long-lasting collaborations is at the core of our peer support offer.
We want small business owners to take some time and head space and remove themselves from the day-to-day running of everything, leave their comfort zone, step back and work on the bigger picture.
This is often something an entrepreneur has yet to have done in practice, and we find that by having this as a shared experience, it becomes easier to identify challenges and workshop solutions.
6. Take advantage of online networking opportunities
There are plenty of ways to network and maintain relationships with people you may not know in your local area or across the country.
Online networks such as LinkedIn or Twitter provide a great platform for connecting with other business professionals and entrepreneurs.
Focusing on your specific area of expertise is a great place to start, then expanding out into related topics and industry-specific forums. This will help you learn more about the sector, keep up with current trends and find potential opportunities for collaboration.
Common business networking themes:
- marketing / creating a marketing plan and sales
- management and leadership
- HR and managing employees
- business development strategy
- financial planning for small businesses
- social media
Joining membership networking groups could also be beneficial; these are usually invitation only or require some form of payment.
Here, you’ll typically get introductions to high-level professionals and have exclusive access to events created especially for members of that group. This may also enable entry to a business directory or forum, where you can share information and services, talk around different topics, and keep a profile for customers and other businesses to find you.
7. Try and commit to regular participation
Regular participation in business networking groups, both online and offline, is essential if you want to see tangible results from your efforts.
Trying to attend regularly will ensure that you become more visible within the group and establish yourself as an active participant. As your business grows, it’s also important for developing new contacts within the group, which is invaluable for building trust and collaboration opportunities.
As a result, getting involved in regular networking activities can create a sustainable network of contacts that can help to drive success for your business. The benefits include gaining insight into various industries, finding potential mentors or advisors, receiving job referrals or simply making great connections that help to further your career.
And don’t panic if you can’t commit to every single session – life as a business owner and entrepreneur can be non-stop, so don’t be put off if you miss one or two. Any good networking group will be supportive, offer advice and probably be in the same boat!
Networking for small businesses – why not give it a try?
Expanding your business network is a great way to build relationships, gain visibility and open up opportunities for your business.
Taking the time to attend regular networking programs can help create meaningful connections with other professionals in your field, but more than that – it can create real success in your own business.
By following these 7 steps, you can make sure you’re getting the most out of every business networking experience – so don’t forget to bring along plenty of business cards (physical and virtual)!
Online networking groups who regularly meet via video calls is becoming an increasingly popular way to connect.
Further resources, guidance and FAQs
We are compiling an up-to-date list of Oxfordshire networking groups and resources, which will be coming soon. In the meantime, we have answered a few of the common questions about business networking below:
What are the main benefits of business networking?
- Creating connections and building relationships with other professionals in your field.
- Increasing visibility for your business, which can lead to more customers or clients.
- Expanding your circle of influence and opening up opportunities to grow your business.
- Gaining insight into different industries and finding potential mentors or advisors who can offer guidance and advice.
Do I have to pay to attend business networking events?
How do I find a suitable networking group or event?
One of the first places to start is by searching online for business networking events near you. Websites such as Eventbrite and Meetup, or even local social media groups, can be useful for finding events and business networks in your area, where providers like OxLEP Business will host their available events.
Don’t forget to ask other business professionals in your current network whether they know of any good networking opportunities too.
How can I make sure that my business stands out at a networking event?
The vital point here make sure that you’re well prepared for the event and ready to make an impression.
If you are attempting to connect or collaborate with someone from a company considered further along in their business stage than yours, it could be beneficial to have examples of successes at hand; recent campaigns, an example of business profit (if possible), and other impressive stats. It may not feel natural to do so but getting into practice and not feeling ashamed to sing your own praises can only be beneficial to the ultimate end goal of business growth!
You shouldn’t expect to be ‘interviewed’ or put on the spot at most networking events, but there is now harm in being prepared. Your elevator pitch – the short, yet effective statement about who you are and what your business does – should be concise, clear and memorable so that it makes an impact when someone asks about your business.
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The Annual Conference saw close to 150 people from across the county’s business community attend the event.