By Andy Lopata, Business Networking Strategist

At the end of last month I spoke at an event in Milton Keynes run by Business Scene . Business Scene’s website aggregates networking events across the UK to help people find the right event or group for them. In his introduction, Business Scene supremo Warren Cass explained how the site works and mentioned that, at that time, they had 14,000 events listed. 14,000 networking events! That’s breakfast meetings, lunch events, dinners. If that choice isn’t enough for you, you can then factor in the online networks, recently joined by Google Plus. I must receive an invitation to a new network every week on average.

If you are new to networking, there are so many networks you can choose from, it can get very confusing. Many people simply join the network they are invited to, without a clear expectation of what they want from it. Here are three tips to make life a bit easier:

1. What do you want to achieve?

Different networks provide different things, and it is important to be aware of what you're looking for from your network. Generally speaking, you can classify business networks into one of three main areas, although there will be overlap:

Profile Building - do you want to raise your profile in your local area, or globally through an online network such as Ecademy or Twitter? Do you want to become better known in an industry sector, such as your own or that of your clients?

Brain Building - are you looking for peer group support, local knowledge, enhanced skills or greater understanding of your industry? Are there networks that will help you gain a better understanding of your client’s needs and give you the ability to anticipate them, or learn from others servicing the same market?

Referral Building - is your aim to develop a network of people who will champion your business and bring leads to the table? Remember that successful networkers build their business by selling through the people in their network, rather than to them.

Once you know what you want to achieve, you can look at the different networks available and ask yourself, and them, how strong they are in each of these areas. Then set clear goals from your membership that you can measure to see if it's working for you.

2. Online or offline?

With the growth of online networks, many people now ask whether these replace offline. A lot depends on what you want to achieve but the bottom line is NO!

Whether you connect with people through a facilitated network or through your own endeavours, nothing can replace personal contact. If you are going to build strong relationships with people, it's much better if you've seen the whites of their eyes! Online networks bring you closer together, but you still need to meet up wherever possible.

Of course, you can learn from each other and build an initial relationship online, but if you want people who will truly go the extra mile for you, you need that personal contact. One area that online networks have made easier is staying in touch with people. We can now use Status Updates and Tweets to both tell our network what we are up to and, more importantly, keep in touch with their progress and show them that we are interested.

3. What do you need to put in?

Networking is a proactive activity. It doesn't help to join a network and sit back waiting for the results.

Once you have clear goals from your networking, ask yourself what you need to do to achieve those goals. From attending events and preparing to meet fellow members regularly and having a clear idea of how they can help you, the focus you have on what your commitment is will make a big difference to the results you get from your network.

Please don't sign on the dotted line, hand over your cheque and sit back waiting for the benefits to come flooding in. You will be very disappointed with the results if you do, and so will your network. With so much opportunity to network, a considered and strategic approach is vital.

Failure to think clearly about what we want from networking can lead to wasted time and lost opportunities. A focused approach can lead to a growing business.

To find out more about how to pick the right networks, implement a successful networking strategy or how to generate more referrals, please visit our website www.lopata.co.uk or contact us at harvey@lopata.co.uk / 01992 450488.

Check out Andy Lopata lastest books on Networking

- Brush up on your networking and presentation skills - '...and Death Came Third!' Second Edition

- Develop an effective referrals strategy 'Recommended: How to Sell Through Networking and Referrals'

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