By Matt Perkins, Head of SME Engagement at FreeAgent

With social media and web forums fuelling the growth of online networking, it’s tempting to think that old fashioned “face-to-face” methods like breakfast networking groups and business speed-dating events are a little outdated.

But rather than an archaic way of doing business in the digital age, traditional networking is actually something that you should avoid at your peril! According to research by Moo.com, face-to-face networking helps generate a potential £9.45 billion each year for UK entrepreneurs and small business owners - and by mixing online and offline networking, it’s possible to achieve strong growth by extending your reach beyond your close circle of customers and supporters.

However, if you are one of the many people who cringe at the thought of face-to-face networking and dread any potential awkward conversations, fear not! Here are a few of tips for what to do - and what not to do - when you’re networking face-to-face, in order to help your business flourish.

Networking Dos:

1. If you’re standing on your own in a room full of strangers feeling nervous, think about how you would feel if someone came and introduced themselves to you — pretty relieved, right? So pluck up some courage, look around the room and you are guaranteed to spot plenty of people in exactly the same position. Everyone’s a winner!

2. Have an ‘elevator pitch’ in place — but be very careful not to be too rehearsed or you’ll sound insincere. Use it only as a guide to quickly and effectively explain what your business does and what opportunities/partnerships you are looking for.

3. Have plenty of business cards on you, but more importantly, make sure you collect other people’s. It is often a good idea to offer your card during a conversation, that way the other person either feels compelled to offer you theirs, or it will at least give you the lead in to ask if it is not forthcoming.

4. Make sure you follow up quickly after the event — a quick email to say ‘nice to meet you’ or even better — send a LinkedIn invite and build your network of contacts at the same time.

5. In the longer term, it might be a good idea to add them to a CRM system such as Capsule so you can keep in regular contact via update newsletters or just set reminders to say ‘hi!’ every few months.

Networking Don’ts

1. Butting into existing conversations is the worst of networking faux pas. There is nothing worse than someone jumping in with a big ‘hi!’ when you are mid-conversation in a useful discussion — don’t do it!

2. Even if you are really enjoying a conversation with someone, don’t hog them for too long or you could end up missing lots of other potential contacts in the room (or making them miss some). The best way to network is establish a mutual interest, make the connection (exchange cards) and arrange to follow up over a coffee or phone call away from the event at a later date.

3. Don’t do all the talking! You can gain a lot more information and assess a potential partnership/opportunity by listening to what is being said.

4. Don’t waste time stuck talking to someone you have no common ground with. Don’t be afraid to step away from the conversation. You should do it tactfully and politely - perhaps introduce someone else in the conversation and step out - but be decisive.

And one final note on networking: remember, you aren’t just selling to the people in the room. Every single person at a networking event is likely to have their own personal network. Make a good impression using the tips above and they may be happy to introduce you to people outside of the room who could bring new opportunities to your business — that’s what networking is all about!

Matt Perkins is Head of SME Engagement at FreeAgent, which provides the UK’s market-leading online accounting system specifically designed for small businesses and freelancers.