How to deliver a networking event that is useful to your firm and your attendees

running good networking eventsCommenting on a recent LinkedIn post about great networking event ideas got me thinking – and as usual, it turned into a blog post for you accountancy firms.  I know many accountants do a good bit of networking, and some of you may run networking events yourselves.  If you’re thinking about it, or want to make them more effective, here are a few tips.  (Not all of these are my brilliant ideas, but a combo of many suggestions from the LinkedIn post and other experiences!)

Don’t overdo the activity.  Networking events that include a meal, a speaker, a speed networking game, a business card swap, and a door prize can get really crowded.  The point of networking is to let people network.  Sure, there are those who don’t know what they’re doing there and will just clump together with people they have met at previous events, but make sure there’s plenty of time to actually mill about and chat.

Consider a niche or industry focus.  Do you have multiple clients in the restaurant or hotel industry?  Perhaps a specialism in veterinarians, or dentists, or startups?  Run multiple networking events for those in that industry – they’ll have plenty to talk about, and your follow up can be very targeted.

Give your networking event a theme.  Granted, I’m thinking more along the lines of “Elements of a Great Website” rather than “Star Wars” or “Disney Characters”, but hey – it’s your networking event.  Just be prepared for some very oddly-dressed attendees if you go the other route.

Serve food.  To paraphrase Field of Dreams, “If you feed them, they will come.”  Make sure it’s easily edible standing up, unless you have plenty of seating (and if you do provide seating, be aware that changes the entire nature of your event).  I attended an event where they gave us a china plate, fork and knife, and wine glass – and we were meant to hold those whilst networking and trading business cards.  Needless to say we all eventually gave up on the plate, fork, and knife, and focused on the wine and cards.

Arrange ‘hosts’ who make sure that attendees get value.  Identify a few people in your firm – partners or team members – who know that the point of the event is to help connect the right people together.  (A really good networking event has remarkable similarities to a dating event….but let’s not get into too many analogies there.) Prior to the event, ask those who are coming the type of businesses they most want to work with.  (“Anyone with a pulse” is not a good answer.)  If they have no idea, you’ve got a great opportunity to help them with business development or coaching, if that’s in your line!  If they know, make a note of it and check your attendee list (or look around on the event date) and make sure to make the introductions.   (You could even send round a short questionnaire beforehand – perhaps using something like our online Diagnostic Builder!)

Make sure you know who you want to meet.  Follow the same process for your own firm.  One of the areas in which we’re constantly helping accounting firms is that of identifying niche/industry areas of focus.  It sounds odd, but if your accounting firm works with “all kinds of businesses”, you’re missing out.  Our content marketing plans help you identify your best niche areas, and develop specific content delivered directly to those types of businesses.  Makes all the difference in the world.

Encourage mingling.  Some people are unfamiliar with networking, or uncomfortable, or just lack skills in that area.  Help them out.  If you notice a group of people who are all from the same company who’ve been huddled together for a half hour, look around and bring someone else into the mix – or split up the group.  You’re the host – so you can do whatever you like.  People will listen to you.  And they really do want to get new business, although sometimes they don’t know how.

the jelly effect andy boundsLearn about how to network properly.  Read Andy Bounds’ book The Jelly Effect – the book is worth it alone for the chapter on networking.  Read it, apply it, use it when you network or at your own event.  Heck, give out copies to your best clients.

Make the event match your firm persona.  If you’re a wine-and-cheese type of person, go for that.  If you can get away with a silly-hats-day, feel free.  Play music that you like, whether it’s classical, country, or soul.  You want to host the type of event that brings the type of people like you – because people do business with people, and if they click with you, it’s more likely they’ll do business with you.

Follow up.  I can’t say it enough – no marketing effort (online or offline) gets its best results unless you follow up.  Send a thank you email, or a handwritten note, or even a small gift to each person who attended.  Contact all those who missed it and let them know what they missed, and give them a link to the next event.  Prepare all your follow up before you even host the event, because that will determine how the event itself should be structured.  “Begin with the end in mind,” said…somebody on the internet.

Combine forces with another type of business.  I’m not talking about the standard accountant-banker-solicitor trio – go beyond that and think about your clients, your prospects, your potential attendees. What do they want?  How can they build their business?  What will be helpful for them?  One accountancy firm I knew ran joint events with a graphic design company they knew and liked, and it was a raving success for both companies – and for the attendees, also.  Who doesn’t need some form of design, either on a website, or leaflet, or email campaign, or new logo…?

Don’t sell.  A networking event is there for people to mingle, meet, have a nice time, perhaps achieve some particular goal for you or for them.  But it’s not a hard-sell time, where you talk for a half hour about your great services.  Again, think of it from the attendees’ perspective – and think about the time of day.  If it’s early morning, short and sharp is the key.  Middle of the day, perhaps a short speech.  End of the day, casual and relaxed.  There’s nothing wrong with promoting your new book, or offering a free resource – but just put it out there, and leave the rest to your amazing follow up.

Consider a targeted follow-up event.  If you have 50 people attending your networking event, perhaps 10 of them would be interested in a targeted, focused smaller event directed towards their business or issues.  If your major event was on a particular topic (say websites), you could invite a guest speaker to run a short, focused session helping attendees to address what’s missing in their existing website, and generate a short action plan to fix it.