Networking has long been considered an essential business activity, especially for anyone involved in sales, which includes small business owners like photographers. But the way many people approach networking is fundamentally flawed.
There’s a reason many of us dread networking events: There’s always at least one person wandering around looking to deliver their sales pitch to whoever will listen.
That’s not networking. “Networking is about learning, helping, collaborating, and giving,” says Michael Goldberg, author of the book “Knockout Networking” and a networking business consultant. “If you are focused on what you can provide others instead of what you can gain for yourself, then you are much more likely to make good connections.”
You can’t start networking with an expectation of personal gain. Instead, think about how you can help other people through your knowledge, resources, and network. These efforts will eventually be reciprocated by your contacts.
Don’t be upset if your networking efforts aren’t all well received. Not everyone is an ideal contact. Focus on the people you think you may have rapport with.
Goldberg believes in what he calls the “one-third dynamic,” which says that we will connect with about a third of the people with whom we attempt to form a relationship. “That one-third is the right match for you,” he says. “Focus on that one-third, and don’t worry about those who don’t get back to you. They’re not your people.”
Lesson 1: Know the difference between networking and selling. Networking is not selling. Networking, if done right, leads to sales, but your interactions don’t begin with an attempt to sell. Rather, networking is about learning, collaborating, and discovering how you can help others. Ultimately, it’s about making a connection. When you approach networking as a means to build relationships with an honest intent to help others versus selling your wares, you’re more likely to reap eventual rewards.
Lesson 2: Understand your target market. Who are your typical clients? Who’s most likely to refer work to you? These people should be your focus. Focusing on a target market doesn’t mean you need to say no to connections outside that target, but they’re not your priority. Pick a lane and concentrate your efforts in that segment.
Lesson 3: Understand your centers of influence. Centers of influence are people who target the same market as you but aren’t competitors. For example, if you’re a wedding photographer, who else is doing business in the wedding space in your area? Wedding planners, caterers, florists, venue managers, and videographers are potential centers of influence.
Lesson 4: Follow a process. Put a process in place so you’re connecting with more and better centers of influence. Using a process makes your efforts more consistent and trackable. Again, using the wedding photographer example, think about each group you want to target. Figure out how you can help them, what you can offer to strengthen their businesses, and how you can refer work to them. Establish a step-by-step process for reaching out, following up, and building a relationship. Create a strong circle of good contacts, then continually expand that circle.
Focus on outreach. Have a goal to reach out to a certain number of contacts each day—for example, one florist, one wedding planner, and one caterer. This isn’t cold calling. It doesn’t need to be that abrupt. Send a note via the appropriate social media for your specialty or shoot a short email to introduce yourself. Say that you work in the same space and inquire if the contact is open to connecting to see how you could help one another.
Leverage social media. Social media networks are tools for social connection, after all. Focus on the channel that works best for your target market. For example, if you’re a corporate photographer, LinkedIn may be your best bet. Wedding and portrait photographers may do better on Facebook or Instagram. Before you reach out to someone, do your research. Follow their feed, like and share their posts, and find ways to create engagement before directly contacting them.
Look at geography. Start in your geographic area for relevance. People are more likely to connect with local contacts who understand their area and their market.
Use “we” language. Don’t make it about you. Make it about the relationship. How can we work together? How can we help each other?
Keep in touch. Once you’ve made a connection, follow up. Consider how you can stay on people’s radar. “Remember, your goal should be to help and collaborate, so this isn’t about calling people to ask for referrals,” says Goldberg. “Learn how you, as a photographer, can help.” Can you connect them with people in your network? Offer a service or resource? Make these follow-up conversations about your contacts, what you can learn from them, and how you can be a valuable asset to them.
Ultimately, you have to have the right mindset, says Goldberg. Are you looking to collaborate or just trying to sell? Are you sincere in your offers to help others build their businesses and patient enough to wait for that help to circle back to you? If so, then you stand a better chance of finding your people, that invaluable one-third. The next step is building greater success together. That’s what networking is all about.
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large.