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For some people, the idea of entering a room of strangers and making small talk is up there with forgetting to wear your clothes to work.

Others, however, look at it as an ideal way to broaden their network of potential customers. But if you’re not “wired” to view it that way, what are the five best tips for small businesses to increase their connections at upcoming networking events?

What should you do ahead of time? What should you do at the event? Who should be on your list to meet when networking? Networking can be a chore, and it can be tough to make it through an event - let alone make your presence felt in a crowd. 

So here’s my top 5 small business networking tips to help you master your next event and turn what can be a challenging concept into one you can enjoy:

1. Find the right business networking event

Make sure you’re going to an event that’s likely to help your business in some way. That will ensure you’re thinking positively about the event from the start.

Networking events that occur on a regular cadence - whether they’re after work gatherings, breakfasts, seminars, etc. - are the best options, in order to create an ongoing impression. Don’t discount major industry trade events either - for small businesses, larger events can also offer unparalleled networking opportunities and some companies offer free entrance for the day without having to pay for a full conference entry. These can be invaluable opportunities to meet movers and shakers in a dynamic environment.

Put together a list of small business networking events that you would like to attend and prioritise the ones you think are most relevant to your business. Some upcoming events in the UK that might be worth taking a look at are:

Also, keep in mind that the The Federation of Small Businesses also runs small business networking events throughout the UK on a regular schedule, and it might be worth checking those out for you - or to get your team engaged in making the connections at these events. 

2. Prepare for the event

Know who’s coming (many organisers maintain lists of those invited and may be willing to share if you ask), and identify those that might be excellent prospects via your internal CRM system or Rolodex.

Quickly scan the business news for what’s going on in the industry so that you have something to speak about if conversation lags. And of course, in the UK, we’re always happy to discuss the weather. Just don’t let the conversation completely turn over to a discussion about the weather - unless, of course, your company sells umbrellas or rain-proofing systems!

3. Create a compelling “elevator pitch” 

Be prepared to tell someone what your business does and why it matters in 30 seconds or less. Even better? Figure out a 10-second overview that makes someone want to ask more about it. For instance, “We create cloud software” is simply not enough. “We give our customers the technology they need to understand exactly what their customers need and therefore grow their business” is much more compelling!

What is the key business driver for you? Why does it matter to someone else? What can they relate to? By pulling these messages together and making them interesting and catchy, you’re giving the person you’re talking with an opportunity to understand your business concept and align with your ideas.

Know your business “unique selling point,” own it, and be prepared to explain it again and again. 

4. Circulate

It’s easy to get stuck in a corner at networking events, and many small business networkers who have not previously been required to attend these events feel overwhelmed once they’re in a room full of people. It’s a natural reaction, but it’s important to overcome it.

For many people, having a colleague also attend the same event makes it easier to manage - and creates an opportunity for two people to tell the story rather than just one, reaching a wider audience - but colleagues shouldn’t act as a “security blanket” - if you just talk to your colleague all night, you’re missing the point of business networking altogether.

If the issue is that you don’t know how to get out of a conversation, use a drink refresh or a bathroom break to break up the conversation - or better yet, if you spot someone standing alone nearby, take the opportunity to bring them into the conversation. They will be grateful for the help - and may be a great business prospect.

One final note - there are always a few “stars” at every small business networking event. Waiting for them to have time free takes the time you have to get others on board, so weigh the time commitment to get in front of the “stars” carefully. Could your time be better spent elsewhere, cultivating a new connection? 

5. Create a lasting connection 

First, remember it’s not a sales pitch or a sales event. This is about creating connections with other small business leaders and the larger business ecosystem and network.

Ultimately, you must remember that key decision makers meet many businesses at events - sometimes, several in the same area or offering the same product. Therefore, the onus is on you to follow up when you’ve discussed something really interesting.

Many people will be open to connecting on social networks such as Twitter and LinkedIn following an event. LinkedIn inmails are a great tool for this (check out these six rules for more engaging InMails for some great tips).  But don’t take it badly if they don’t. People have differing tolerance for social media connections.

That said, if you feel that you’ve had a great conversation, never hesitate to drop that person a quick, professional email and if they indicated interest, do end that note with a call to action - whether that’s a visit to your website, a trial of a product, or even an interesting article in the press about a topic you discussed or better yet, about your company (check out my blog ‘How to get great for PR for your SMB’ for more on how to make that happen). 

Making an impact

Finally, remember that each and every small business networking event offers a great opportunity to actually meet, face-to-face, those people that may become useful in one way or another to your business.

By building trust, alignment and interest in the key drivers for your business, you’re offering people an opportunity to get onboard and help you as you promote your company. It’s a very small investment to make in terms of time - and can reap big dividends when done right.

Now get out there and mingle! 

For more ways to help your small business stand out in crowded places, grab a copy of this 'Small Business, Big Impact' e-book and start over-achieving on your goals.