Things have moved on dramatically from the situation a few years ago when I first got involved in networking. Back then (1999), there were very few networking groups in the UK. Now there are a multitude of opportunities to network throughout every day and into the evening. Social media has made it easier to set up and promote your own event and many people and organisations do exactly that.
Sheffield SIFE is one such group. They are a student run company who are hosting their first networking event in November. They asked me on Twitter for some advice on what they need to think about to make their event a success. As they are not the first to do so, I thought I would share my ten top tips to make your networking event or networking group a success.
In the first five tips I share ideas for your preparation and what you need to know to get the event just right event before the first person shows up:
1. Manage expectations
Avoid creating just 'another' networking event in an already packed calendar. If you want to motivate people to come to your event, be clear both to yourself, and to your potential visitors, what you want to achieve and why you are relevant to them.
Once your purpose is clear, use that to drive your format (see tip six, coming soon) and who you invite. If you can tailor your invitations to match your outcomes, focusing on getting the right people to attend rather than simply numbers, you'll stand a better chance of making your event a success.
Finally, be clear in all of your communications what the event is designed to achieve, why people should come, what to expect and, importantly, what is expected of them. If people will need to participate in any way, let them know in advance rather than making it a surprise.
2. The right time
Timing is everything. Rather than closing your eyes and sticking a pin into the nearest calendar, or simply checking the diary of the organisers and seeing what day you are all free, pick a date and time that will suit your attendees.
Yes, you will need to make sure that the timing is convenient for all key parties, such as the venue and speakers, as well as the organisers. Then look at the diary and ask yourself what your intended attendees like to do on that day.
It's also important to consider what time of day will work best for your attendees. For example, if SIFE are a student body, perhaps breakfast meetings will not be the most popular choice! (Apologies for the unfair generalisation.)If your attendees are mainly parents of young children, they may not want to give up their evenings. A number of events are now being held between 4pm and 7pm, giving people most of their day in the office and letting them get home at a reasonable hour. I think this is a great option to consider, although by no means the only one.
It's also important to make sure there are no regular, or one-off, competing events on the same day and also worthwhile checking that you don't clash with a major sporting event or anything similar that may compete for your attendees' attention.
3. The right place
Getting your venue right is such an important part of a successful networking event. People will judge not just the event but also you on the quality of the venue. I have heard countless horror stories of events held in a corner of a pub where people couldn't hear the speaker because of background noise, or where it simply felt wrong.
Your venue should be accessible and easy to find, it doesn't matter if it's the most beautiful venue in the world if people can't get there, or get home easily if it's in the evening. If people will arrive or leave in the dark, consider how safe they will feel if alone. And consider disabled access too.
Hygiene is vital too. One way to check out the likely hygiene standards is to visit the toilets when looking at the venue. If they are kept clean it's more likely that the venue as a whole has high standards.
Make sure you try the catering too if that's to be provided. What will be served, is it of a good standard and is there enough choice, both of food and drink, for everyone who will attend?
4. Cost management
How are you going to manage the costs of putting on the event? If you are charging, choose a price that's easy for people to administer (round numbers are good if people are paying cash on the day, you don't want to worry about providing change) and be clear about whether there are any associated tax issues. Also make sure that one person is responsible for collecting, and banking, the revenues from the event as well as paying the bills on time.
People will want receipts, so make sure that these are available. The best approach for all is usually to arrange payment in advance online, through a site like Paypal. It makes administration easier, money will be less likely to go missing and you don't have to worry about accounting for a large amount of cash. It also puts your mind at rest to know your costs are covered before the event starts. You may need to make some allowance for people turning up on the day though, perhaps charge them a premium for the inconvenience.
One way to offset costs is to look for sponsors. Will a friendly company provide drinks and canapés? What publicity or support can you offer the venue in return for providing their room without charge?
5. Spreading the word
If you want your event to be a success, you need to tell people about it. There's no point getting everything else right and standing in an empty room waiting for people to turn up!
As previously mentioned, first of all be clear about whom you want to invite, based upon the desired outcome of your event. You can then send targeted invitations to those people and use social media in the right way to promote it in the right areas. For example, if you wanted to attract people in the pensions industry, you'd choose a niche social network, like MallowStreet and appropriate groups on LinkedIn focused around that industry to share details of your event.
If you want people to spread the word for you, make your message viral. Share interesting facts that others will want to share, perhaps create a simple promotional video and keep tweets to a short length so that people can easily retweet them (aim for less than 120 characters).
Once people have registered, remind them about the event and some of the interesting things they can look forward to and people they can meet. Sites like Eventbrite help you do this automatically and share the guest list in advance. The trick is to remind people regularly enough so that it is high in their mind without overwhelming them with emails, tweets and text messages.
In the second set of tips I'll look at the event itself and what happens afterwards. From whether to create guest lists and getting the format right, through hosting to the follow up and what to do if you want to run a series of events.
If you'd like more detailed advice on running networking events, my 2005 book Building a Business on Bacon and Eggs, co-authored with Terence P. O'Halloran and Stephen Harvard Davis is available in book and kindle formats on Amazon.