Hellos, Handshakes, and Happy Hours: 9 Tips to Master Networking

Going to an industry conference is like going to camp*: you reconnect with old friends and forge new relationships centered on shared experiences and the similar challenges you face. Despite what you tell your boss or HR manager, learning new tips and tricks of the trade isn’t the primary reason that professional development budget for conferences, membership organizations, and lunch and learns is so crucial to your career success. Technically, you could learn that same content on your own by listening to a podcast or reading a book or attending a webinar.

The main reason why conferences and other networking opportunities are so valuable isn’t because we learn. It’s because we learn together.

I know a lot about the company I work for. I know what our competitors are doing and who our customers are. I know our typical results and opportunities for growth. Networking provides a new lens to view your marketing program. What did she learn launching a podcast for her B2B company? How is he creating engaging content for his “unsexy” product? How did she build her career switching industries? What does he think the big marketing trend will be in 2020?

While networking and building relationships with your peers is such an important skill, sometimes it can be awkward…

Here are 9 tips to take you from a Networking Wallflower to Conference Miss Congeniality.

1. Always, always, always bring business cards.
This should be a no-brainer, but in my experience, it isn’t!

2. Make the most of a captive audience.
Stuck waiting in line for your conference badge? Sitting at a lunch table waiting for the lunch and learn to start? Strike up a conversation with the people around you.
Note: Some people won’t be receptive to your overt friendliness. That’s ok! They aren’t your people anyway.

3. Know your elevator pitch.
Have your 20 second summary ready to go for when people ask what you do. As an example, here’s mine: “I’m the Marketing Director at TrueSense Marketing. We market exclusively for nonprofits to help them raise money from donors in their communities. My job is marketing the marketing agency to prospective nonprofit clients. That’s how I know I’m good at my job cause you wouldn’t have your B team marketing your marketing.” [insert laugh]

4. Create a signature question.
When I meet another marketer, I always ask what his or her top challenge is. It’s a great way to learn more about their work and much more interesting than “tell me what you do.” Think of other creative ways to learn more about your new connections.

5. Set a networking goal.
At each conference, I set a goal of meeting 20 new people. Aiming for this high quantity always results in a handful of real connections.

6. Leave your computer in the hotel room.
If you’ve invested the time and money to attend a professional event, don’t spend it tethered to your work headquarters. Too often people at conferences spend the week furiously typing at every opportunity, and missing the chance to build relationships with the people around them.

7. Offer to help.
Did you meet someone who’s looking for a new gig? Trying to figure out why their unsubscribe email rates are so high? Learning out how to work with a egocentric designer? Offer to help where you can and commiserate where you can’t. Strong relationships require mutual benefit and compassion, professional relationships are no different.

8. Don’t skip on the fun stuff.
Yes, it was a long day. And yes, you’ll be bad at axe throwing. But it’s important to do the fun stuff too. Casual atmospheres make it easier to mix and mingle with lots of people, and maybe discover a new hobby!

9. Leverage your LinkedIn account.
After you meet someone, always add them to your LinkedIn connections with a personal note. I tend to reference the event or what we talked about in my note. This serves two purposes. First, it reminds them who you are. Second, it will be in your LinkedIn message history so you can remind yourself down the road who they are. For example: “Hey Bob, great to meet you at the AMA luncheon today. I look forward to continuing our conversation about email click-through rates at the next event!”

Recently, I had an awesome networking experience at a conference. The first person I met in the first session lives in Las Vegas and does marketing for a charity that helps adults with disabilities find jobs. On day two, I met another person at a happy hour who markets for a similar nonprofit in Indianapolis. Day three: the three of us had dinner together. What an impactful networking opportunity I was able create.

What tips do you have to become a master networker? Connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know. (And, a good excuse to put our networking skills to work.)

*My dad, a medical doctor, says that his Gastroenterology conferences are not like going to camp.  Maybe that feeling is unique to extroverts.