How to Organise Your First Networking Event
As a small business owner, you will want to build up your network of useful and like-minded fellow business people. Attending local networking meetings can be a fantastic way to do this and networking has been proven to be a very effective use of your time to help make lucrative connections.
However, many small business owners cannot find a good networking group to join, or there simply isn’t anyone actively hosting networking meetings in their local area. If this is the case, then you should consider organising your own. By hosting your own local networking event you can give yourself a great platform to help you and your business to become recognised within your community, while at the same time helping other locally based small business owners to make useful contacts along the way.
If you have never attended a business networking meeting before, or you have been to a few but wouldn’t know where to start with organising one, let’s take a look at some easy steps to setting up your first networking meeting.
1. Establish your reason
Most business networking groups are focussed around one particular niche area. It may be that you would like to establish and build a networking group for people working in your industry, or for a more general group such as freelancers and sole traders, single entrepreneurs or small business owners who would like to make friends and engage with other business owners within the community regardless of their industry or business sector.
When planning your event it really helps to define who you want to invite along. For example, you could be looking to inspire local business owners that are looking to write a book, collaborate on a joint community project, or raise funds for a locally based charity.
2. Relaxed or formal
The next step in your plan is to establish whether you want your first networking meeting to be a casual affair to help break the ice and build friendly relationships amongst your attendees. You can make your first and subsequent meetings as relaxed or as structured as you want. It may pay you to make your first event an ice-breaker so that people can feel relaxed and you can encourage them to get to know each other and allow them to mix and mingle. Once familiar with one another, your subsequent events can take on a more structured approach if you prefer.
If you are going to hold a small event for your first networking meeting, it may be enough to arrange it to be held in a local pub or restaurant that everyone is familiar with. You could then book a large table and have a sit down meal together.
A different approach would be to organise a fun activity for everyone to take part in. You could arrange for your guests to try their hand at making chocolates or to have an origami lesson. The focus will then be on the activity and would help those attending who are shy or find it hard to talk directly to new people.
You may even want your first event to deliver something useful, such as giving a professional talk or workshop in digital marketing, using social networks for business or how to build a company website. Something useful that many solo entrepreneurs and small business owners would appreciate help with.
3. Work out your budget
No matter what sort of networking event you have in mind, you will need to set aside some money to cover your costs. Do a bit of research into what you can expect to outlay by holding your meeting in different venues and whether you are going to factor in some free elements for your guests, such as a free welcome drink and nibbles, or a free take-home pack for them to leave with.
Once you know what you plan to offer at your networking meeting, you will be able to price it up. Next you will need to think about how you are going to pay for the event. This may be through ticket sales where guests will pay to attend, out of your own marketing budget, or even through sponsorship from another business or trade partner. Never be afraid to charge a reasonable price for attendance. You need to put good value on to your event so that it is seen in a good light and will be regarded more highly by those attending.
If you plan to hold a talk or presentation within your first event, you could get another business to pay to exhibit or give a talk to your group. This is another way to raise funds to help cover your costs. This would work well for networking meetings that were niche specific with a talk or presentation that would be relevant to all of your guests.
4. Pick the right venue
When choosing your venue, you need to consider your budget as well as the location. If you have a small budget, then you can look to hosting your event in a community hall or local pub where you can hire a function room or a corner of their dining room. Location counts too, so if you are inviting along people who have local community based businesses, it makes sense to keep your venue pretty central. Organising an event is a remote location that is miles away from your town may send out the wrong message, and may not be very convenient for your guests to attend. It is best to stay within the heart of your community.
Approach your local venue managers to see who may be the most open and receptive to hosting your event. Many managers will be very happy at the prospect of having a regular networking group use their facilities. They may well offer you a generous discount and may also get involved in your networking meetings themselves.
5. Check your calendar carefully
Selecting a time and date for your networking event can be difficult. You will not be able to suit absolutely everyone that you wish to invite along, so it is better to look at your chosen demographic to work out what would best suit them.
If you are in the restaurant trade, you are hardly likely to get other local restaurant owners to come along to a networking event at 8pm on a Saturday night for example. It would probably make more sense to hold a breakfast event that wouldn’t clash with their own working hours.
There are also other factors to consider, such as family care and childcare arrangements. A 4pm event wouldn’t be good for parents doing school runs, family meal preparations and bedtime routines between 4pm and 6pm. If your demographic is largely parents, then it may be better to schedule an event during the school holidays for example.
6. Marketing your networking event
Without question, you need to get your event out there to your intended audience. Make the best use of free promotional tools such as social media to spread the word. LinkedIn is a great start because it is like Facebook for the business community. Also look for related professional groups and forums where you can post your event for free. If you are organising a niche industry event then look at industry press and websites where you can publicise your event to your target audience.
Low-cost advertising through Facebook ads are effective, especially if you want to attract local people to attend as you can set your ad to reach people within a certain radius of your location or town. If you have any local press with a business section, you could look at taking out a notice in there to promote your event for a relatively small price.
You could look at running off a batch of flyers for your event and mailing them out to your list of targeted small businesses in the local area. If you live in a small community, then you may even think about going door to door to hand deliver your event leaflet directly to small businesses.
7. Gather useful attendee information
When people start to book places for your event, it is important to gather some key information from them. You should try to find out their names and job title, where they work and what industry they are in. Having this information to hand is useful because you can draw up a list of attendees in advance of your event and circulate this to everyone attending. This will help your guests to identify each other and find potentially useful contacts that they would like to meet. You could look at creating a one-page event site for your meeting or a networking app that will allow people to connect with each other on the run up to your event and even afterwards too.
8. Personally greet everyone
It is important for you to be present at your networking event – this doesn’t just mean actually being there in person, but means making yourself available to personally greet everyone that steps through the door. Make it your priority to introduce yourself to every guest and make them feel welcome. This will help you get recognised as the event host and will break the ice with people so they can feel confident about approaching you with any questions they may have.
9. Follow up afterwards
Once your networking event is over, you may take a minute to congratulate yourself on a job well done. However, do try to keep up the momentum while your event is still fresh in everyone’s mind. Follow up your meeting by thanking everyone for attending and invite them to either a Facebook group or LinkedIn group that you can set up for them to join and stay connected with each other.
Even if you cannot organise regular networking meetings for people to attend, you can still foster a good online community with your network after your first event. Doing this can keep everyone connected and help them to build deeper relationships. You can then gage suggestions for your next meeting and open up discussions about what to include or what can be done better next time.
Organising a networking event is a great way to set up meaningful business connections that can help boost not only your business reputation, but will help you to be seen as a business leader and influencer. There is also a lot of fun to be had from organising networking events, so you will be helping lots of sole traders, solo entrepreneurs and small business owners to feel less isolated in their work by building strong business relationships, as well as forging some new friendships for yourself.