Networking at events is a powerful way to make connections that can help your business thrive. Finding the right partners, vendors and other contacts can lead to major breakthroughs that lead to a stronger company. Locating, preparing for and attending networking events requires a commitment of time, but the payoff is well worth it.

Take these steps to ensure you get the most out of networking events and maximize your efforts.

Identify specific goals

You could go to a networking event every day of the week if you wanted, but you will have the best outcome if you select events carefully based on your goals. For example, you might want to develop sales leads, get vendor recommendations, put out feelers for new hires, bounce a new product idea off a few peers, or glean insights from fellow entrepreneurs.

Keep your goals limited and focus on only one or two objectives until you’re satisfied that you’ve achieved what you set out to do. When you try to accomplish too much with your networking efforts, you run the risk of spreading yourself too thin and never building any useful connections.


Select your events carefully

The best networking happens with an industry focus. Look through online listings such as Meetup, Eventbrite, LinkedIn’s events section, Eventful, and Facebook Fan and Groups pages for networking events that match your goals. Get on the mailing lists of your local chamber of commerce to learn about its networking events, and keep up with your sector’s trade association websites and publications for industry-specific events, conferences and workshops.

Many networking events happen on a regular basis, such as weekly coffeehouse chats or quarterly conventions. An event might not instantly yield results for you, but promising ones deserve several visits before you cross them off your list permanently. Familiarize yourself with the crowds and topics, and repeat trips might pay off.


Plan ahead

Research each event before you attend, brushing up on the backgrounds of the organizers and speakers who are best positioned to connect you with others. Registration lists are often available ahead of time, so scan the list of other attendees and read their online bios to get a sense for the type of crowd you can expect. If the event is relatively small, you may be able to identify specific people you’d like to meet — seek out their LinkedIn profiles or the bios on their company websites so you can spot them in the crowd.

Bring a colleague or two for events that are particularly promising or simply too large to cover effectively on your own. Find out the dress code for the event and whether it will likely be casual or more professional attire.


Relax and ask questions

Only the most extroverted among us thrive on working rooms full of strangers, so prepare some conversation topics to break the ice. The key to making connections is to ask good questions and take a genuine interest in the answers. Ask other attendees for their opinions on the event’s speaker or featured topic. More general questions such as “How did you get involved in this industry?” or “What kinds of challenges are you facing these days?” help you learn more about the person and naturally lend themselves to a substantive conversation.

Remember that everyone is at the event for the same reason: to network and build relationships. Everyone can enjoy meeting new people in a low-pressure environment, so relax and don’t hesitate to introduce yourself. Serious business relationships start with casual conversation.


Follow up

Create a system for tracking the contacts you made. Smartphone apps such as CamCard, Business Card Reader or ScanBizCards scan paper business cards and automatically record the information in your contact list. Depending on the specific tool, these apps can let you sync the data across different devices, search and sort each contact in a variety of ways, or attach calendar reminders that let you know when it’s time to get back in touch. Research each app’s offerings to find which one may best suit your needs.

To get in touch, initiate LinkedIn connections with your new contacts, and follow up with key people via email while your recent conversation is still fresh. If you offered to send references, convey information or make introductions to someone you just met, deliver on your promises promptly.

Your time is valuable, and planning ahead before networking events ensures that that you will net the best return on time invested in these important business-building gatherings. Even a small amount of front-end planning and thoughtful follow-up can dramatically improve your networking results.

To get the most out of all your business endeavors, apply a “return on investment” (ROI) mindset to everything you do.

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