Oh, no, not another one of those "networking" posts. Never fear -- I have some ideas that are different from the run-of-the-mill ideas.
Hint 1: Manage your expectations. Do you expect the event coordinators to provide you with a room full of warm bodies to toss your business card at? If someone did that to you, would you be impressed? As the economy has declined, I've heard complaints from event-goers about attendance. Take the opportunity to connect with people who threw your business card out the first time you handed it to them: if there's a connection, they'll keep and remember your business card.
Hint 2: Bring a host-gift. Ok, so let's say you DO expect your networking event host(s) to supply you with a room full of warm bodies to throw your business cards at. Return the favor to your fellow attendees and the event hosts. Invite your prospects, your entire mailing list, your clients, to any event you're going to go to. You'll get another moment of face-time with your warm prospects, which couldn't hurt any, a chance to make sure your clients are happy with your services, and there will definitely be more warm bodies in the room for everyone else. If every other guest did this, suddenly you'd be at a standing-room-only event and have to fight your way to the bar. Don't complain--contribute.
Hint 3: This builds on idea #2 -- carpool. The host-gift is built-in and you end up with a captive audience for the drive to and from the event. Don't be a boor, though -- spend your time driving and listening without talking. They'll think you're the most brilliant person on the planet if you just listen. When you do finally speak, they're sure to hear you if you heard them first. Talk about time well spent! You just networked during what would normally have been dead time.
Hint 4: Note who DOES show up. So there's very few people at the event. Look around carefully. Have you cultivated a close relationship with the diehards in the room? This is your prime market! These are the avid networkers, the people who come early, stay late, form lasting ties with other networkers, and refer clients. Don't be disappointed -- be excited. Pick 3 people, make a point of looking them in the eye and asking if you can contact them after the event to do coffee (breakfast, lunch....). These are the people you need to catch. Get on their preferred referral list. They'll be at the networking events you miss. These are the people who could be your unpaid sales force.
Hint 5: Play a game. Pick out a topic for information you want to know -- something of importance or common experience to most people -- and make a game out of getting an answer to the question from as many people in the room as possible before the end of the event. Here's some ideas: Who was your favorite pet? Where did you grow up? What did you study in school? What is your favorite sport? Make sure it's an open-ended question, and that you ask for more details (i.e. What was it like growing up in Brooklyn?). The best thing about this exercise is that you'll definitely be taking your eye off the prize. You'll get to have some interesting conversations, and maybe someone will actually ask you what you do, or ask for your business card.
Hint 6: Play matchmaker. This one is fun. Go to the event with a bunch of business cards for people you trust and can refer. If you're new to business this could be your plumber, your beautician, or your brother. It doesn't matter what they do, just make sure that you know their services are good and that they give great customer service. Now, while you're at the event, listen for any opportunity to give out one of their cards. Talk less about what you do, and find out more about what people in the room are looking for. Turn into an opportunity ninja. When the attendee shows a moment of need, search your brain for the right connection. It can be someone in your card case -- or it can be someone else in the room. The best black-belt opportunity ninja tactics happen when you can drag someone across the room and make a direct referral on-the-spot. If you don't know the quality of the person's work, and can't give a hearty honest recommendation, just mention it: "Oh, I just met Jane, she said she's a realtor. Here, let me introduce you to her." -- the person will know that it's a cold referral, but it's better than nothing. Note: The best way to give a referral is to hand the person the card for the vendor and ASK if you can give the vendor their information. "My brother John is a plumber. Here's his card. If you give me your card I'll have him get in touch with you about that leaky sink."
You get out of networking what you put into it. It's got "working" in the name -- it's not a free ride, business doesn't just happen. It can take months before you see the results, but when you do see the results, they're profound. Referred clients gripe less about your services and are usually your best customers, because they come to you with some measure of trust & faith. But for your referral partner to transfer that trust & faith, they need to know you and see you at work. Get to know your referral partners -- that's the real power of networking.
For local networking events, please see Networkaholics Anonymous -- help increase attendance at local networking events!