How to make the most of networking events and expos

Do the words 'expo' or 'networking event' bring you out in a cold sweat?

Do you dread having to make small talk and be nice to strangers?

Do you worry that speaking to people and drinking tea for a morning/day means you're not getting on with real work?

You're not alone.

 The Stadium of Light, Sunderland

I've always loved meeting new people though, and now my business is up and running, I'm going to events a lot, and I know it is time well spent. In the last couple of weeks I've been to the Stadium of Light in Sunderland for a Mussel Club expo (which had a very useful breakfast panel Q&A before the main event), a couple of local business networks and coming soon is the North East Expo in Newcastle. 

Whether you're exhibiting, or just attending, here are the my top ten tips on how to make the most of attending events:

1. Know your audience. Who will be there? What will they be looking for out of the event. Target your stand or conversation accordingly and don't just go with the same old spiel. And don't forget the speakers at the event, they are usually well connected and could give you a good opportunity to network with new contacts.

2. Be yourself. And smile. But really importantly, if you're at a stand, don't sit! You need to be welcoming and approachable and nothing says "I really don't want to talk to you" like someone sat behind a table, and on their phone. Be passionate about what you do, and make sure anyone with you is the same. You're better off having more than one of you if you're running a stand, because not only is being on your feet all day tiring, but having one of you in charge of social media means the other(s) can meet and greet.

3. Have a clear understanding of what you're selling and be clear on what your message is. Try and get across the one thing you want people to remember about you and your business, whether you are exhibiting or not. You only have a small window so make the most of it.

4. At one business network I went to last week, someone I've met before complained that it was the same people he always saw at events. But I don't think you should worry about meeting the same people time and time again. This is how good connections are made. Apply the same principles of the marketing rule of 7 to meeting new people. The rule of 7, put simply, says that people need to hear the same message seven times before they take action to buy a product or service. So apply that to networking, and it makes sense that the more you meet someone, the better. They can get to properly know you, your business, your skills and your experience. Meeting someone face to face also helps because you can have an emotional connection and build up a relationship. Especially if you remember their name (see no. 9). Not only could they become clients or contacts, but they also become advocates for you and your business.

5. Be aware of changes with GDPR and collection of data and marketing to potential clients. The impact on B2B marketing as a result of GDPR cannot be ignored. If you've collected business cards from people at an event, you'll need to prove and show a consent statement because simply accepting a business card will not be enough if you want to market to them afterwards. Those days of popping your business card into a bowl to win a bottle of fizz may be long gone. You can read the official line from the Information Commissioner's Office, or this article from Nile is a bit easier to read.

6. Make your stand stand out. If you're exhibiting, do something different. Don't just use pop up banners, choose something that fits with your brand. Give out home-made biscuits. Use a video screen to showcase your work (helpful for when you can't speak to everyone at your stall). And if your stand is popular, other people will gravitate towards it. But don't just give out freebies, think about who you want to attract.

7. If you are going to give out freebies, get them to extend the reach of your stand. People will carry them around and you want them to generate interest in you and your business. 

8. Have meaningful conversations with people, don't just pick up said freebies. When I go to an event, I aim to speak to at least five people for at least 20 minutes each. Just because you don't know what data warehousing and disaster recovery is or don't think you need it, doesn't mean that conversation with that company isn't worthwhile. Chat, listen, engage, introduce. Every conversation is an opportunity. But make sure you observe and listen and don’t just jump in and start giving them your sales pitch. 

9. When you meet someone, try and repeat their name 3-5 times during the conversation; not only will you be more likely to remember them, but when you see them again, using their name makes the relationship more meaningful. I like this by Karen Sternheimer on the social psychology of remembering names and how not using them can lead to power imbalances.

10. Don't forget social media. One of the things that bugs me about event management is not promoting a hash tag for an event, and people therefore not using it. I find them really useful to keep up with events I've not been able to make, and, done well, they usually give a great narrative of the day. More importantly, do some pre-event communication and promotion to drum up interest before the event itself across all the social media channels you run for your business. Conversely, don't forget to promote yourself after the event.