Face-to-face networking has been an established part of the business culture for as far back as we can remember.
For decades we’ve continued the idealised notion of powerful businessmen making multi-million pound deals as they wander the golf course. Of them schmoozing one another, enjoying fancy meals and fine wine at expensive restaurants while they seal the deal.
For the average business, whatever its size, the reality of face-to-face networking is a bit more down to earth. It’s about meeting and making local contacts with other liked-minded business people you can connect with, who might benefit your business and career.
It also puts a ‘face’ to your brand and business, which helps to build working relationships that in time may transpire into viable business prospects. Because we all prefer to do business with people we know and trust.
But with the expansion of the internet and social media networking over the past few years, are there still benefits to this traditional approach to networking? Or has it, in this technological age, become obsolete?
The key to a successful business is getting your name out there and known; establishing it within the market as a reliable and trustworthy company to do business with. In the past, attending weekly or monthly networking events has been the most cost-effective way of promoting your business, which it is when you compare it against the more substantial price tag of an advertising campaign. That said the bill for those breakfast, lunch and dinner networking meetings, and occasional drinks with your business contacts can also add up.
But now, as online networking requires only a computer or smartphone, possibly a website and social media tools such as LinkedIn and Twitter, all of which can be resourced free of charge, the costs of raising your businesses profile and extending your network has reduced substantially.
This fact, combined with record numbers of people using the internet on a daily basis, is exactly why so many businesses are now turning to social media to network and connect with other businesses and customers.
In the preface of his book This is Social Media: Tweet, Blog, Link and Post Your Way to Business Success Guy Clapperton writes: “It’s hard to imagine promoting oneself without social media sites these days, so much so I’m having my business cards reprinted with my Twitter and Facebook user names on.”
In fact the book itself is a testament to the power of social media. Having submitted a synopsis for the book to agents in the traditional way and still waiting for a response, Clapperton tweeted: “Would anyone be interested in publishing a book on Twitter for business?” Someone was interested and the book was subsequently published.
There can be no doubt then that there are many advantages to social networking online. Not only does it help financially on the money you need to invest in networking, it will also save you time. And as a business owner or manager, your time is too valuable a commodity to be wasted.
To achieve significant results, face-to-face networking requires that you commit to attending meetings and events on a regular basis, enabling you to nurture and benefit from those network relationships. But that can impact and be disruptive in managing the delicate balance of your home life and work commitments.
By contrast social media is fast, efficient and can be achieved, as long as you have the technology to do so, wherever you are. You can be involved in a topical industry discussion via one of your LinkedIn groups whilst you’re at the office, on the train or sat in front of the TV at home.
So the questions remains, if social media networking wields such power for businesses at a fraction of the cost, doesn’t that render face-to-face networking redundant?
In the latest edition of his book, The New Rules of Marketing and PR, David Meerman Scott says a resounding no. “Some people think that Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking tools can replace a face-to-face approach to business. I actually think strong social networking ties lead to stronger personal relationships because it is easy to facilitate face-to-face meetings that never would have occurred otherwise.”
So how do they measure up against one another?
Face-to-face networking is personal, and you get to meet and begin forming a judgement on whether you can trust that person and ultimately their business. The relationships formed are developed over time and based on mutual respect.
Online networking can feel impersonal and also moves at lightening speed, which can make it challenging to keep up. When dealing with people online we can never really be sure exactly who it is we are interacting with. Personas can be misleading, and our natural instincts that guide us in making decisions about who we can and can’t trust, are compromised within the virtual world.
In terms of geography and demographics, local networking events are just that, local. By networking online you can effortlessly expand your social network globally, establishing contacts around the world. However, it’s important to remember that not all of your potential business contacts or customers are going to be online and fluent with social media.
This is a concern Guy Clapperton cautions readers about, sharing the experiences of Zoe Brewer, joint owner of the Elmfield Hotel in Devon, who only use social media to advertise the business. A fact which occasionally becomes a problem: “We get people ringing up for a brochure and we tell them we don’t have one, we have a website, and they say they don’t have access to the internet.”
Of course for anyone not a natural at socialising, the most off putting element of face-to-face networking can be that you have to get out there and actually meet people.
For many the thought of mingling and presenting their sixty-second pitch to a group of strangers can feel both daunting and terrifying. That’s why virtual networking can be empowering to people with social anxieties, enabling them to connect in ways they perhaps haven’t been able to before.
However, even with its current popular status there are unresolved issues about social media networking. “There is a lot of stigma still attached to spamming in social media networking sites,” says Paul Davison, Managing Director of SLM Search & Selection, “and a resistance of releasing information to an unknown person […] just because they have asked you for the information.”
There are also concerns that contacts in your networking circle may become overwhelmed by the onslaught of tweets, blog posts, and Facebook updates they receive from you. So much so that they stop reading them or remove themselves entirely from your network.
Perhaps the reality is then that neither medium is sufficient on its own. Many experts believe that the combination of face-to-face and social media networking, creating a synergistic force, is the key to success for businesses.
But in the day-to-day running of a business, how do you incorporate both styles of networking?
For SLM Search & Selection, who are part of the Financial Services Recruitment industry, constant networking is essential.
“They are both still very useful,” Paul told Ask the Experts, “however, for me, face-to-face networking now supplements telephone and social media networking, purely because there are only so many hours in the day and I can achieve far greater results in a shorter space of time.”
In an article on Hazel M Walker’s website about blending face-to-face vs. social media networking, the Referral Strategist, concludes: “If you are not using social media to enhance and enrich your face-to-face networking you are missing out on a great many rich relationships and possible opportunities.”
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