Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Networking, Part Two: Stranger Things

Talking to people you know and making new connections through them is a great way to market yourself or your business. But it has a built-in limitation: it depends on the people you already know. No matter how social you may (or may not) be, there are always going to be a lot more people you don't know.

There's also the question of quality: your friends and acquaintances may be great people personally, but they may not be connected in ways that are helpful to you professionally. It all depends on whether they have similar backgrounds or work experience to yours.

That's where organized networking groups come in. And no, you don't need to be a graduate of a prestigious college (or any college at all, for that matter) to take advantage of them.

Having a college connection does give you a built-in "in" to alumni networking groups. Just Google "alumni networking" plus the name of your college, or sign up for LinkedIn and search for your alma mater, and you can easily find these groups.

But there are plenty of networking groups centered not on colleges but on professions, locales, or other commonalities. Start with your profession. Virtually any profession has societies that provide information and support; their websites often point to networking opportunities.

Are you a yoga instructor who just moved to Boston? Do you want to meet hip young high-tech workers in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn?  Chances are, whatever you do and wherever you are, there's a networking group out there that can cater to you.

Then there's the very structured world of Business Networking International, which has chapters in many regions, charges a membership fee, and has strict attendance rules. This kind of group brings together professionals with different backgrounds who might need each others' services or can act as conduits to their own personal networks. The idea is that each person you meet is a doorway to a roomful of other people whom you wouldn't otherwise be able to contact.

So you've signed up to attend a networking event. What should you expect? They vary quite a bit, from big cocktail-party type events in which everyone stands around wearing name tags, to smaller sit-around-a-conference table meetings. The best are those that provide both an opportunity to introduce yourself to the group, and some time to chat informally. In any case, keep these general guidelines in mind:

• Dress as you would for a job interview.
• Bring plenty of business cards.
• Prepare an in-a-nutshell statement of what you do and what you're hoping to get out of the group or session. Unless you're a supremely confident talker, practice your pitch at home first.
• In your statement, give enough detail to provide a clear idea of your skills, experience, and goals; but make it concise enough so you don't drone on and lose concentration, because that's a sure way to lose your audience!
• Listen carefully to others' presentations and to what they say in conversation, and take notes. Just as you're hoping to make contacts and learn useful information, so are they; you may have something of great value to someone else. Karma is good!
• Follow up! If you meet someone who might be able to help you, or vice versa, follow up with a phone call or an email.

Attending these events has the added benefit of getting you out of your routine, out of your office or your home, and into a fresh environment with new people. Meeting just one person -- one former stranger -- whom you can connect with on some level can make your whole day!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Networking Is Like Dating

This week's post comes from Elisa Peimer, one of Oren Hope's founding partners.

Networking - you either love it or hate it. Setting up a meeting or starting a conversation with a total stranger can be challenging, especially for those who are not particularly extroverted. It can be like dating - will they like me? Will they think I’m smart? Will they find my professional skills, er, attractive?

But the truth is, there's really nothing you can lose by networking, and a tremendous amount to gain. Especially in a down economy, knowing more people is a huge asset.

Being a good networker is a skill that, like most others, has to be practiced. Start small and easy. Network with your friends, people whom you already have social relations with, and who are either in, or tangentially related to, your industry. Ask them questions about their company, their projects. Try to discover if there's an opportunity that they might not have seen. Friends like to help. If you've had that "networking" conversation, then they'll think of you when an opportunity comes up. But if you haven't, they won't.

Once you've mastered the art of talking to your friends, it's time to step it up. Ask them if they can recommend anyone they think you should talk to. It can be anyone – movers and shakers in your industry, colleagues with job openings, or friends who hire freelancers. Try to pinpoint what kind of people you want to meet. The more specific you are, the more likely you'll jog someone's memory into thinking of someone you might like to meet.

Once you have names, make sure it's okay to use your friend's name when making contact. Assuming it is, use that to open up the conversation. A little flattery never hurts. Tell them that your friend had great things to say about them and you'd love to take them out for coffee and find out more about what they do and listen to any advice they might have for you. Ask them if they can share their expertise and perhaps give you suggestions about steps you can take to further your goals.

It won't always work. People can be busy and stressed and not have the time to meet with you. But it's surprising how often you'll find that people enjoy sharing their background and knowledge, and appreciate being turned to for advice.

Don't be pushy - if your offer isn't taken up, don't press it, and don't worry about it. Even if you're able to meet with only a handful of people, that's still a big number, because each one has his or her own network of connections -- and now you're connected to it.

It's the real-world version of LinkedIn. Everyone you know knows lots of other people, and chances are your next opportunity is going to come from a personal contact. Don't be shy. As with dating, your next big thing might be just around the corner.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Email Marketing in a Web 2.0 World

As spam filters have improved, the amount of junk email most of us actually have to look at has dropped. Still, nearly 90% of email messages sent worldwide are spam. Many represent scams, but many are real marketing messages, though they come from businesses all across the spectrum of legitimacy. Like spam, they persist because they cost so little that even a tiny response rate makes the whole campaign worthwhile.

Most of us aren't spammers, though. If you're reading this, you probably want to market your products, services, or expertise sensibly and in a fairly targeted way. You want to use email to get the word out -- without spamming. But it takes a lot of time and effort (i.e. money) to prepare an email campaign. You must carefully compose and target your message. The email has to look good. It must include an opt-out link, a link to your relevant web pages, appealing graphics, and text that's been optimized for the short form of an email (and, of course, carefully proofread).

But now that people are getting more and more of their information through social networking (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), are they still reading their emails? Here at Oren Hope World Headquarters we've observed some "email fatigue" going around. With increasing dependence on social networking for informal communication, and with other distractions multiplying, some of us find ourselves trashing most emails without looking at them, even when they're newsletters we signed up for or campaigns we opted into.

Some of our clients report website hits jumping significantly following an email newsletter. For these companies, email messaging is working. We've noticed, though, that they tend to be companies with fairly devoted followings. Brand loyalty seems to be in short supply these days, so if you don't already have a fairly loyal -- or at least a large -- base, you might be wasting your time with email marketing. Is your email list heavy with previous customers and/or top prospects? If not, an email campaign might not be the best use of your resources at this point.

But what do you think? Is email still a viable marketing tool for smaller companies that aren't yet well-established? Use the Comments section to let us know your perspective.