By John Coulston, VP of Sales at Vend

Attending events and networking with others isn’t just fun, it can also open up a lot of doors. Connecting with fellow small businesses for example, can pave the way for referrals, business partnerships, and learning experiences. Networking with thought leaders and members of the media on the other hand, can generate buzz and bring in more exposure for your business.

So whether you’re attending a high profile conference, or a more intimate gathering, it’s essential that you put your best foot forward and find ways to make the most out of the experience.

Here’s some advice to help you do just that:

1. Find the right networking event

Standing out in a networking event requires that you find one that best fits your goals, budget, and comfort level. Take the time look up functions in your industry and do thorough research to determine which one’s the best for your business. You can do the following:

Ask your own network – It’s always best to get recommendations from people you know and trust when vetting a networking event. Turn to your entrepreneur friends or any retail professionals in your network and ask them about any events they previously attended. What were the things they learned? Who they did they meet? Would they recommend that you attend the event? Asking these questions should help you decide which functions are worth the investment.

Check the groups or organisations you belong to – If you belong to any industry-relevant groups, find out if they’re hosting events you might be interested in. In the retail industry for example, The British Retail Consortium for instance, hosts smaller, more specialised events, such as the Omni-Channel Retailing conference, the International Retailing conference, and more.

Aside from looking at industry specific groups, check the calendars of any small business organisations or government entities. For example, the Federation of Small Businesses holds a series of networking events, which takes place in various cities in the UK.

Run a search on Eventbrite or Meetup.com – You can also take your event search online. Head to sites like Eventbrite and Meetup, type in your keywords and the sites will serve up relevant events in your area.

2. Think “help-working” not just networking

You already know the basics of networking. Smile. Ask questions. Don’t be self-absorbed. These are all solid tips, and they can be effective when you want to make a good first impression, but establishing real connections—ones that can actually lead to new business, knowledge, and friends—takes a little bit more than a smile.

The key to establishing lasting and fruitful relationships is being helpful. Be helpful whenever you can, even if you don’t think the person you’re helping can give you anything in return. That may sound trite, but it works.

While it’s important to have a purpose in mind, try not to be too calculating. Don’t treat each conversation as a transaction.

So attend events with a giving mind set and help out whenever you can. Share advice openly. Give them a referral if you think they can deliver. Make introductions. Also remember relationships don’t just form on the event floor. In fact, most of it will happen after the function has taken place.

Which brings us to our next point…

3. Follow up

People always say “I’ll call you” or “I’ll be in touch,” but not everyone follows through. After the event, make it a point to touch base with your contacts with a quick email or phone call. No selling, no agenda, just a quick “It was great meeting you!” Be sure to personalise your messages by bringing up the specific things you talked about during the event, or offering a customised tip that they can apply in their business.

It’s a great way to make an impression considering a lot of people don’t always follow through with their “I’ll be in touch” promises, and the people who do follow-up, only do so to send a sales pitch.

4. Take the conversation online

Posting about the event online? Don’t forget to include its official hashtag in all your updates. Event-specific hashtags are super handy because they allow you to connect with like-minded attendees and you can use them to find relevant conversations to participate in.

This is another effective way to follow-up with your contacts. Send tweets to the individuals you met and let them know how much of a great time you had. If you took photos, post them online and tag or @mention people who are in them.

5. Stay on their radar

Can you still make a good impression weeks or even months after the event? Sure you can. Stay updated and top of mind with the people you met by putting them in special Twitter lists so you can see what they’re tweeting and jump in whenever you have something to say.

Another good way to stay on people’s radars is to set up Google Alerts on your key contacts so you can keep tabs on them. That way, if they’re quoted in the media or publish a press release you can send a timely note.

Bottom Line

Networking isn’t just about delivering elevator speeches and collecting swag. It’s about establishing real connections with others and harnessing those relationships for the good of your business and theirs. So prep your inner social butterfly, head out there and put these tips into action!